Review feature: Tbilisi International Festival of Theatre 2014

Georgia on his mind

Mark Brown is impressed by stagings of Orwell and Gorky at the Tbilisi International Festival of Theatre

Walking along Rustaveli Avenue, the major thoroughfare of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi (a street named after the great 12th-century poet Shota Rustaveli), one can see, in its architectural grandeur, why “Tiflis” was revered as one of the most impressive cities of the pre-Soviet Russian Empire. However, to spend a week at the remarkable Tbilisi International Festival of Theatre is also to discover the proud independence of Georgia, a nation of less than five million people, who have their own distinct, lyrical language (which has its own unique alphabet) and a series of great poets who tower above the disrepute of the nation’s most infamous son, Ioseb Besarionis Dze Jugashvili (aka Joseph Stalin).

One of the noted highlights of the festival’s Georgian showcase, Farm, by the Iron Theatre of Tbilisi, addresses itself to the legacy of Stalin. A liberal adaptation of Orwell’s Animal Farm, it tells, in fine ensemble and puppet performance, the story of the betrayal of the ideals of the great, socialist pig Old Boar, and the attempts, in the new regime’s adoption of the hated farmer’s son, to shape a “new human”.

Funny, inventive and chilling, Farm outshines the large cast version of Guy Masterson’s originally one-man Animal Farm (which has been an Edinburgh Fringe hit over many years). Staged by the Tumanishvili Film Actors’ Studio of Tbilisi, and directed by Masterson himself, it returned home to the festival following its residence at the Edinburgh Fringe in August.Tbilisi - Farm

Although the Tumanishvili’s piece disappoints, it is interesting to note how the Edinburgh Fringe spreads its tentacles across the world. Pip Utton’s monodrama Adolf, which imagines Hitler on his final day, made its name in Edinburgh some 16 years ago, and was staged here in Tbilisi in Turkish, as part of the showcase of work from the Caucasus and the Black Sea region.

A promising offering in the regional showcase was the world premiere of Turkish company tiyARTro’s Kurdish-language production of Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. Despite the best efforts of fine Kurdish actor Hilmi Demirer, the piece founders on its audacious, but ultimately failing, directorial concept.

The distracting, pseudo-modern design (from Demirer’s costume to the pointless drapes which obscure one’s view of the Georgian and English surtitles) is dominated by transparent plastic. Although the actor, undeniably, has the emotional range to be an excellent Krapp, his garb gives him a sense of virility which is totally at odds with his character (who is, as the play’s title suggests, at death’s door).

The presence of death is evoked more powerfully in the production of Maxim Gorky’s early 20th-century play The Lower Depths. Presented by the Vaso Abashidze Music And Drama Theatre of Tbilisi, it is both the most aesthetically beautiful and emotionally affecting piece I’ve seen here in Georgia.

Writing like a bolder, more muscular, yet equally poetic and humanist, Chekhov, Gorky portrays a diverse group of impoverished people living in a shelter in Czarist Russia. The play alights not only upon death, but also sexual desire, suffering, hopelessness, love and human resilience; the full set, in fact, of the elements required for great tragedy.

Sadly, director David Doiashvili’s three-hour long production labours many points in its repetitive second half. That, and the gratuitous, emotionally instructive use of music, do needless damage to an otherwise gorgeous and profound theatre work.

This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on October 12, 2014

© Mark Brown


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