Monday, 23 May 2016

Unsent Postcards: Titus Andronicus – Ojunszkij Sakha Theatre, Yakutia

[seen 23/04/16 at MITEM III, Nemzeti Színház, Budapest]

While I was Hungary [12th – 24th April], the main (only?) thing that seemed to be being debated over and over and over in British theatre circles, on the British left, and the rest of my social media echo chamber, was the ongoing failure of inclusion, the lack of diversity and, from certain quarters, an impression of the impossibility of any meaningful interaction between ethnic groups.

Which was all incredibly cheering. Obviously.

It was also the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, of course. And all the forced jollity and jingoism that that entails. So it was ironic to watch an entirely racially homogenous version of one of Shakespeare’s most multi-ethnic texts, being performed by a racial group – Yakuts, from Yakutsk, which is in far eastern Russia; a part of far eastern Russia that is past China, but a lot further north – a racial group that has literally no physical resemblance to *anyone* in the play (Northern Europeans, Southern Europeans, Northern Africans). In terms of colour-blind casting, this was about as perfect (and as far removed from “western” discourse on race) as it gets. No one looked Roman. No one looked Germanic. No one looked “Moorish”. Everyone was a Yakut. And I’m presuming that the ethnic homogeneity of the cast reflected the society/community from which it sprang. You don’t get the impression that many populations emigrate to Yakutsk for fun. It’s near as dammit to Siberia, after all... (I mean, “near” is relative when you get to the vast expanses of Russia. In reality, it’s about as “near” to Siberia as Helsinki is to Cairo, but...). But, yeah, fill in your own guesses about uncharitable steppes here.

[pause. For a month...]

A month on [never apologise, never explain], it’s remarkable how much of the production remains lodged in my head (you might think that’s not all that remarkable, but think about a show you’ve seen in the last month that you’re already forgotten, or at least filed to the back of your mind and have to really work to dredge up...).

Sergey Potapov’s production is strangely familiar. A mix of martial ritual and familiar story. If someone stuck this in front of me at the Young Vic and said it had been directed by Peter Brook, I think I’d be completely happy with that explanation. It’s not quite a formally bare or stripped back as latter-day Brook, but that’s the ball park.

The stage centres around a short raked platform on a revolve. It has numerous trap-doors, to the extent that a whole passage can be opened in the centre. There are a bunch of painted wooden chairs on it, around it, that are moved and slammed down in regimental patterns.

But it’s the costumes that really grab the attention. Ranging from hints at the Roman Empire, right through to curious – and I’m guessing traditional Yakutsk – straw skirts, bodices, even maybe trousers. There are also “Oriental”-looking robes, and make-up. As a set of things intersecting in a production of Titus Andronicus hailing from this geographical cultural intersection it all seemed to make a lot of sense to me. (But, equally, I’m no expert. It might equally have been a really detailed, specific set of production choices to evoke somewhere else entirely, with no trace of the home territory whatsoever – although this seems unlikely given the overall MITEM frame).

And, what else to say? The play’s the play, still. Played here for narrative with symbolic gestures, rather than psychology and photo-real violence, as recent UK productions have maybe preferred.

But, perhaps because of imported Shakespeare-fatigue (fatigue imported by me from England, I should say) and possibly mild homesickness, while it felt kinda awe-inspiring to see people from somewhere so absolutely remote doing Shakespeare (and on the 400th anniversary of his death), I wasn’t rapt.

I’m not going to join in the coming trendy Shakespeare backlash. He’s *really* already a minority interest, just one accorded an extra deal of significance by a vast realm of politicians and teachers parroting what they know they have to. It’s not a great unspeakable truth that Shakespeare isn’t really all that popular. If he was, he’d be an actual national pastime. Like football. Not a pretend one. Like church.

As it is, he’s a landmark of literature, the familiarity of whose works – nationally and internationally – means that English theatre has access to a set of more-or-less universally understood broad references and symbols, and many hundreds of more niche ones. And, he does offer a fascinating baseline from which to take the temperature of any given national theatre culture. Are they reverent or good? being perhaps the best question.


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