Sunday, 17 April 2016

The Lower Depths – Vaso Abashidze Music and Drama State Theatre, Tbilisi

[seen 15/04/16, at Nemzeti Színház, Budapest]

I’ve only seen one production of Maxim Gorki’s The Lower Depths before – Alize Zandwijk’s production at the Edinburgh International Festival in 1999. I don’t think I even particularly enjoyed it at the time, but, my God has it stuck with me. The relentlessness of it, the faultless naturalism of it, the violence, the nakedness, the tonnes of water being hosed onto the stage. For some reason, I remember more about that production than anything else I saw that year.

[I didn’t catch Phil Wilmot’s 2007 Finborough version. I really did think the Hytner-regime NT had done a production, but can’t find any trace of it by Googling in Hungary...]

Meanwhile, for reasons that I can’t locate on this blog right now, I have a firm and unaccountable conviction that Georgia (the former Soviet State, not the current US one) is amazing at theatre. I can’t believe that this solely stems from ISDF2012’s Our Town, but maybe it does.

Anyway, suffice it to say that, expectedly and unexpectedly, I found David Doiashvili’s production for Vaso Abashidze Music and Drama State Theatre *really* tough going.

I should try to describe the production. Not least, because I do think there’s more than a fair possibility that I’m not *right* to have found it hard going. I will say, though, that it felt like a really fascinating mismatch of national expectations and understandings as much as my own personal tastes (but definitely those too).

It seems likely, given the lack of recent performances in the UK, that you don’t know the play. Have a look at the Wikipedia synopsis, it’s really very good. Short version: 1902 Russian play. A lot of homeless people live in a basement. The play itself is slow, character-based, almost non-narrative, but A Lot of Things Happen. Rob Icke or Katie Mitchell would do it brilliantly; it’s that sort of a play (on paper). (For example, Ellen McDougall would also do it brilliantly, but her version would be more surprising to Maxim Gorki...)

Now, for my money, Doiashvili seems to have transformed the thing into something more like Magical Realism. Which, though it’s not my favourite sort of thing, is a fascinating proposition. Now, I don’t know if this is because magical realism is a default position of Georgian theatre, how Doiashvili himself reads the play, or a misunderstanding of what I was looking at on my part – or a mixture of all three. But, here, instead of “life” just rolling by, it felt as if the character of Luka had been afforded some sort of mystical significance, the pronouncements he comes out with accorded some new level of respect. All this seems to have been underscored with some Very Underline-y lighting and music. If I were prescriptive/mean, I might add that skills with lighting and sound design don’t seem to be big priorities in Georgia on this showing. Sound desks appear not to have a fade-in/out function. And recording sound without bits of stray dialogue accidentally included also apparently not an urgent priority. Similarly, occasionally lights seem to snap on suddenly, sometimes even half-way through a scene, a bit like someone’s suddenly rememembered that they’re meant to be on for this bit... I could all pass for charming if you were in the right mood.

A further problem was that, for me, the performances just didn’t seem to add up to anything. They didn’t strike me as remotely realistic, nor deliberately UNrealistic to any real end. There was some urgency, sometimes, or sound (if rarely fury), but even the “good” performances felt like perfectly good cogs just going round and round without the teeth connected to any other cog in the wider machine. And, again, not like this was a sought-after effect with a discernable purpose. It was perhaps telling that in the few moments where a microphone was used for non-naturalistic moments, the whole thing worked much better than at any other point. But largely, this seemed just to be flailing quietly. And, blimey, the lighting design really didn’t instill any confidence either. There seemed to be three main lighting states: red, yellow and blue. I think blue was night time, yellow was daytime, and red was “other”. Which, y’know...

Suffice it to say that me and this production really didn’t even meet halfway. Which is a shame (obvs). I think, in retrospect (i.e. happily out of the hot and pointedly dusty auditorium – the stage design was mostly dust, to the extent that they handed out those face-masks surgeons wear...) I quite respected the decisions, but couldn’t do the mental gymnastics to fully comprehend where it was going while reading surtitles at the same time. And I really don’t think the aesthetic was every really going to be my bag.

Sorry. :-/

[Not kidding about those lighting states, though...


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