Feature: Tbilisi Festival & the dismissal of Robert Sturua

MUCH ADO IN TBILISI

The recent sacking of Robert Sturua, artistic director of the National Theatre of Georgia, cast a long shadow over the Tbilisi International Festival of Theatre, writes Mark Brown

As I arrived in Tbilisi, the beautiful capital city of Georgia, on Wednesday evening, I knew that (as a member of the executive committee of the International Association of Theatre Critics) I was walking into something of a political storm. In mid-August, Robert Sturua (pictured), the internationally acclaimed artistic director of the Rustaveli National Theatre of Georgia, was sacked by the Georgian minister of culture, Nikoloz Rurua, on a charge of xenophobia.

Sturua
Robert Sturua

Sturua’s dismissal related to a comment he made to a tabloid journalist about the president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, in May of this year. An outspoken critic of the government, Sturua commented that it was possible that Saakashvili did not love Georgia because he was actually (despite his Georgian name) of Armenian descent. It was, without question, a reprehensible comment; but one which the director’s friends and supporters (such as actors Vanessa Redgrave and Alan Rickman, and theatre producer Thelma Holt) insisted reflected, not an underlying xenophobia, but, rather, renowned provocateur Sturua’s frustration with Saakashvili (who the director believes to have been hiding his Armenian heritage).

It was in this somewhat febrile context that my IATC colleagues and I attended Thursday night’s performance of Sturua’s production of Georgian dramatist Tamaz Chiladze’s new play The Hunting Season, after which we were to meet with the director himself. When we met Sturua backstage after the show, we found him defiant. He had, he said, been sacked because of his political criticisms of the government. There was, he continued, no question of him being Armenophobic; indeed, he had great respect for the immense contribution made by Armenians to Georgian culture over centuries.

However, I was still troubled by the comment he made back in May. I pressed him on the matter. Did he, on reflection, believe that he could have phrased his criticism of Saakashvili in a better way? Did he regret saying what he said? He nodded vigorously. Yes, he regretted the language he used. He harbours no xenophobic feelings towards Armenians or anybody else.

Having arrived at the theatre deeply worried about our meeting with Sturua (would his established distaste for “political correctness” extend to defending his comment, come hell or high water?), I left mightily relieved. If, in a short meeting, the IATC executive could get from Sturua a statement of regret and a clear assertion of his opposition to Armenophobia, how could the Georgian government not have come to such an agreement with him in the three months which passed between his notorious statement and his sacking? That question is posed by the statement of support for Sturua which the IATC released on Friday.

All of which, as political scandals in the arts tend to do, made the work on stage seem almost incidental. In the end, Chiladze’s play (a modishly postmodern, obliquely metaphorical drama of the personal and the political) did little to enthuse. Georgia, America and the world unfold from within the life of a Georgian actress, apparently haunted in her flat. Disney’s Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs is juxtaposed, uncomfortably (and almost frivolously), with images of the bodies of Nazi Holocaust victims being shovelled into mass graves. When Prince Charming arrives, not with a glass slipper, but a training shoe, it comes as no surprise.

None of which detracts from the superb acting (which is typical of Georgian theatre), or, indeed, the sweeping vision of Sturua’s production. Nor does it detract from the extraordinary achievement of this, the third Tbilisi International Festival of Theatre, which has – political controversy aside – deservedly established itself as a major event in the world theatre calendar.

This article was originally published in the Sunday Herald on October 2, 2011

The IATC statement on Robert Sturua’s dismissal can be found at: http://www.aict-iatc.org/aict-5.html

© Mark Brown

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