Feature: Academia Theatre Festival, Omsk, Russia

Faust sells his soul in Siberia:

Mark Brown visits the Academia International Theatre Festival in Omsk:

When it became known that I was going to Siberia, some theatre practitioners in Scotland must have thought their prayers had been answered. Much as I hate to disappoint, however, after a week at the Academia International Theatre Festival in Omsk, I have come back.

Omsk is – contrary to the Western perception of Siberia as a place of perpetual winter – pleasantly warm in September, with the autumn leaves a beautiful mixture of browns, intense yellows and startlingly bright reds. Once home to the great writer Fyodor Dostoevsky (who was sentenced to penal servitude in Siberia by the Czarist regime in 1849), the city has a population of just over a million people and is the meeting place of two rivers, the Om and the mighty Irtysh (which flows from the mountains of China, through Kazakhstan and down into the plains of Siberia).

Led by artistic director Olga Nikiforova, and supported by the government of the Omsk Region, the Academia festival is held bi-annually and began only in 2008. It has already developed a reputation as a significant part of the international theatre circuit, attracting this year such names as the Berliner Ensemble, La Comédie-Française, Stary Teatr (from Krakow, Poland) and acclaimed Lithuanian director Oskaras Koršunovas.

Taking in half of the two-week programme, I was fortunate to see the Berliner Ensemble’s bold and imaginative piece Gretchen’s Faust (pictured), based upon Faust by Goethe. Performed on and around a long table in the grand hall of the Vrubel Museum (one of Omsk’s many handsome municipal buildings), this production finds the eponymous doctor wearing an Andy Warhol wig and bursting into hectoring rhetoric as if he is Adolf Hitler.

Here Martin Wuttke (who both directs the piece and plays the title role), surrounds Faust with a chorus of strident, cocaine-snorting waitresses. True to Goethe’s story, a black poodle appears and proceeds, of course, to bark loudly over Faust’s speech. However, in Wuttke’s existentialist version of the drama, the doctor finds the demonic spirit of Mephistopheles not in the dog, but in his frantic, chain-smoking self.

In Wuttke’s extraordinary, frenzied performance, Faust is, by turns, a detestable egotist and a vulnerable child. The remarkable chorus multiplies the female sacrifice of the play, giving the piece a powerful feminist aspect.

Less consistent, but impressive in certain moments, is Shakespeare Laboratory, a series of vignettes presented by the Bolshoi Puppet Theatre of St Petersburg. A collectively devised piece, involving more human action than puppetry, this show involves simply too many ideas and (with a cast of 19) too many performers.

That said, one of the production’s two directors, Yana Tumina, is a longstanding member of superb St Petersburg theatre company Akhe (frequent visitors to the Edinburgh Fringe and The Arches in Glasgow), and her influence is evident in its stronger images. Ophelia, from Hamlet, places a dripping wet, black mask over her face. Lady Macbeth, her naked back to the audience, pulls a white shirt from steaming hot water, before placing a blood-red hand upon the garment. Akhe’s theatre of object and image illuminates an uneven presentation.

There were memorable images, too, in Michał Borczuch’s Werther (based upon Goethe’s novel The Sorrows Of Young Werther) for Krakow’s Stary Teatr. Krzysztof Zarzecki’s modern-day Werther is tortured emotionally and psychologically not by one woman (as in Goethe’s tale), but by three-in-one. As his beloved Lotte triples his pain, a premonitory cloud hangs over designer Katarzyna Borkowska’s witty and adaptable set.

Now a note to Edinburgh International Festival director Jonathan Mills; if you’re considering bringing the work of Lithuanian director Oskaras Koršunovas to Scotland, I suggest that you try before you buy. Although, by all accounts, some of his productions are superb, the Romeo And Juliet he brought to Omsk is truly rotten.

Played on a horribly inflexible metal set – representing the kitchens of the rival Montagues and Capulets – the piece descends into repetitive, heavy-handed metaphor (the covering of an actor’s face with flour repeatedly represents death). Add the most adolescent sexual comedy (like a Carry On film in Shakespeare’s Verona) and some truly lamentable acting, and one can’t help but be astonished by Koršunovas’s misplaced pride in a terribly misconceived piece of theatre.

Finally to the beautiful Omsk State Drama Theatre where the Omsk State Academic Drama Theatre (try saying that after several excellent Siberian vodkas!) is performing a Russian classic, Alexander Ostrovsky’s Late Love. Ostrovsky’s contemplations of human relations tortured by money matters and inequality has, my Russian friends tell me, created new interest in his theatre in post-Soviet Russia. However, although brilliantly acted, this faithful presentation of a work of pre-Chekhovian domestic realism seemed dated and somewhat tired in the midst of an often exciting international festival.


This article was originally published in the Sunday Herald on 4 October 2010


© Mark Brown


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