Last night I went to see INTO THE WHIRLWIND, a production by the Sovremennik Theatre, from Moscow, at the Noel Coward Theatre. Interestingly this was not a new production but a very old one, which has been part of the company's repertoire for twenty years. It was impossible to buy tickets for the production by the time I found out about it, so I queued up outside the theatre on the day of the performance and got some standing tickets for £12. Luckily someone in the audience decided to give up his seat and so I did not have to stand after all, although it was difficult to see well in the slips, where my seat was.
It turned out to be a gift in another way, because I found myself sitting next to a group of young second year actors from RADA. They were working on the stage adaptation of The Brothers Karamazov, based on the Novel by Dostoevsky, and had come to see this show to get inspiration. During the interval I found myself deep in conversation with Maria, a vibrant young Irish actress, discussing Beckett, Pinter, Buchner and or course the Russians and "Stan the Man".
The Sovremennick Whirlwind was based on Evgeniya Ginzburg's memoir 'Journey Into the Whirlwind', about the horrific journey Ginzburg went through in the prison system in Russia during the 1930's, on trumped up charges. It was a shock to see so many women on stage, telling their stories of that time - an Arabian Nights of Russian Prison life. Each woman represented a different attitude towards the government at that time and it appeared clear that there was no real reason for any of these women to be in prison, merely that they were to be sacrificed to the numbers desired to be sent away in order to cleanse the old system.
I was less excited by the play itself than by the production and the experience of watching actors who have given their lives to Stanislavsky's craft. In a Russian company like this, actors stay for life, and it did seem clear that there was very little young blood in the show. The main character Ginzburg herself was played by an actress (Marina Neelova), who was a wonderful actress but twice the age of Ginzburg in the story, and I could not help feeling that maybe we would have felt rather differently about the character if her playing age had been the same as her own. But it was moments like the suicide of one of the prisoners when we saw the full extent of the craft - there was no rope, her feet were not off the ground, we never saw her go into the space to hang herself, and yet her body appeared to be hanging in mid air and was a shocking and awe inspiring moment. The actors lived their parts so utterly it was breathtaking. As the applause came at the end, and the twenty standing ovations that followed, the actors never once broke from their characters, even as they took the flowers.
The company's head of literature Evgeniya Kuznetsova said of the Russian actors "There is an intensity, an emotional abandon that maybe Europeans like you are not used to. This combines with a detailed and organic exploration of each character's tragedy – the tragedy being that they understand the world only as a reflection of their own ego." I thought about this and wondered if perhaps she did not realise how intensely Stanislavsky, Meyerhold and Grotowski are studied by young actors here. But it is the fast turn around of productions and the death of the old repertory companies here which have changed things. In companies like Kneehigh though we have a similar ensemble form of theatre but they would never have the money and recognition to mount a production with so many actors or be able to keep them all together for twenty years. Even if they did, would this be a good thing?
The director Galina Vochek feels that Into the Whirlwind is as important now as it ever was "for me this play is primarily a warning. Yes, this method of destroying a human being and violating dignity is in the past, but what will the future bring? I am pleased when I see young people's faces after the performance. I think this play will serve as an inoculation: you cannot allow yourself to humiliate another human being."
I have always had a fascination with everything Russian and went to Moscow and St Petersburg in 1985, before Perestroika. Watching this production has made me feel that I want to go again and to see how much it has changed and feel certain this will all inspire new work in some way. How I am not sure yet, but I feel there is a lot to learn from Russian Literature and theatre and their struggle.