By Lev DODIN and his theatre. Fear, Love, Despair at the stage of the MDT-Theatre of Europe
By Dr Inna Rogatchi (C)
Lev Dodin is indisputably the best theatrical director in Russia, and the one of the very best ones in the world. He is a rare director who does not know how to do a bad theatre.
My husband Michael and I know Lev for 35 years, and I was lucky to work with him at the decisive period of the Maly Drama theatre in St Petersburg when Dodin had become its leader in early 1980s. Today the theatre is known all around the world as a star MDT- Theatre of Europe and is celebrated for deep, intellectually charged, emotionally dizzy powerful creations.
Because of the background mentioned above, I should not be surprised by a next work of the great director and the man I know well. But I am. I am completely taken by the degree of emotional experience it creates. I do not remember experiencing anything close to that, neither do I remember seeing such reaction from an audience at any theatrical performance ever.
What’s more, once again in his life, Dodin has made an open statement, this time – against fascism and Nazism. He did it at the time when the theme does not bear purely academic interest any longer.
For his new theatrical mile-stone, Lev Dodin opted for the material which could be easily regarded as the one belonging to the last century, unless the director decided to act this time also as the author of a new play based on the two classics of Bertolt Brecht, writing his own composition in which the Brecht’s Fear and Despair of the Third Reich and Refugees Talks are skilfully amalgamed into a new drama.
The director uses classic modern stage-design by his permanent colleague Alexander Borovsky, the son of the legendary theatrical designer David Borovsky.
Dodin starts to speak with the audience, powerfully and intimately at the same time, yet before actors will appear on the stage. We are seeing the set of the performance accompanied by sound of rain for such long time that the set itself as if starts to ‘talk’ to us. Glass is the must element on anything reflecting the Germany of 1930s, of course, as all the glasses will be broken there and then. But on the stage before us, it is not the time for this, as yet. The windows at this weinstube, a typical German tavern, are cracked in a few places, but in general, there are a couple of years before the Kristallnacht yet.
Black floors and wood around, iron chairs; minimum of light and warmth which will become utterly missed quite soon. The rain does not stop for a second. You are forced to get into this atmosphere because nothing else does not happening on the stage for quite a long time. You start to feel how uncomfortable it is here, in that blackened reality with its cracked windows around, and that un-stoppable rain. Total fear does not command this reality as yet, but growing anxiety is the air. The unsettling anxiety gets under your skin, as rain drops behind one trench’s collar.
Dodin opens up to us a panorama of the pre-war Germany, and he creates
for his audience not a museum exhibit, but graphic and vivid sketch full of nuances, ironic and untrivial. People sitting in the Russian theatre are experiencing strong intellectual double-effect hearing practically any phrase coming from a stage. It is amazing how much does Brecht’s text resonates not only with well-known moments of the past, but also with unfolding realities of the life and views of many people in modern-day Russia.
In my perception, the two most powerful features of this rare theatrical work are its moral historian focus, and its Jewish theme.
As an old colleague and friend of Lev Dodin, I know how seriously he takes the education of his actors. The lucky ones who had become his students are receiving such a luggage of knowledge and intellectual attitude additionally to their professional qualities that it makes them a league of their own among the top qualified actors, both in Russia and elsewhere. They have one quality which makes them different: they like to think. And they read a lot.
In order to analyse the anatomy of the Nazism, Lev Dodin decided to add an extra-dimension to the Brecht dramaturgy. Practically all the actors on the stage of this performance are recreating specific archetypes which had been essential for the Hitlerised Germany: baffled police professional who is realising that hisprofessionalism is the last thing that the new dragon of power is expecting from him and who is shrinking both in his personality and his profession; and we know what kind of work this kind of men did perform in just a couple of years ( Investigator played by Vladimir Seleznev); the old-generation’ judge who obviously is looking and feeling as if a Martian landed on Earth, except that land and Mars as it happened, were his own country in which he simply has become a waste ( Judge played by Igor Ivanov); new generation of the Nazi juridical apparatus who were nothing but sheer loyalty to anything as long as it is power-bind, the more brutal, the better ( Prosecutor very impressively played by Pavel Grjaznov); low-middle-class people whose life was bumping into a dead-lock at its every move in between the two World Wars in Germany and who were eager to find the best reasoning for their perpetual misfortunes which are – ‘those Jews!..’, of course ( Insurance Agent played by Adrian Rostovsky).
We are seeing the honest and brave super-minority of Germans who were whipped off by the arrogant power-grabbers and abandoned by the rest of the society in astonishing unity of fear ( Franz played by Stanislav Nikolsky); and also those who represented the majority of the country swapped by Hitler, and their transformation, from observers into gutless puppets ( Minna, the weinstube’s hostess, in a brilliant performance of muli-talented Maria Nikiforova).
That transformation of the society took about a decade in Germany, from 1929 when Hitler was released from prison prematurely, until the Kristallnacht in November 1938 when the German society had become basically ready for the rapid slip into the abyss; the abyss where not only the victims of Nazism were thrown to with animalistic enthusiasm, but also those bystanders who were paralysed by their own fear, too. In the best cases, that personal swiping fear had been transformed into despair among those with remnants of conscience.
We are sympathising and living through a fatal metamorphoses that decent people had allow themselves to be subdued to in that deadly jig of terror that the Nazis started to exercise upon their own citizens first, several years before they were allowed to spread it all over Europe. Decent and respected teacher Carl Furke is turned – under the pressuring, thickening atmosphere of the Nazism, but by himself, unable to withstand the pressure – into completely lost, totally
consumed by a swiping fear creature who is ready to turn in voluntarily on groundless, yet better, self-imagined accusations. This role of self-destroyed German intelligenzia is played by famed actor Sergey Vlasov at extra-ordinary level. His achievement fully deserves theatrical Oscar.
Lev Dodin also brings to his play two very Brecht-like personages, political refugees in pre-Second World war Europe, Ziffel and Kalle, played by the trade-mark duo of highly accomplished actors, Tatjana Shestakova and Sergey Kuryshev. Ziffel is Jewish scientist who had been thrown away from his job; Kalle had spent some time in the concentration camp in Germany but got away from there, luckily. Those were ‘vegetarian’ times in Germany, still. Those two personages are appealing to the audience throughout the whole performance, following the punctuation in which political refugees are inclined to talk: an allusion, a hint, a bitter joke. Nothing is said directly, and everything is said, anyway. This reverberates with the Russian public especially well, due to the historical reasons and extremely well-developed tradition of euphemism there, both in art and in real life.
It is amazing to see on how one hundred years after the Bolshevik revolution the Russian audience is so genuinely perceptive to the game of hints blossoming in the Dodin’s composition of the Brecht’s texts. But what yet more important, in my view, it is the fact that today in Russia its best theatrical director and his team are analysing the Nazism with such passion, clarity and in such detail that it gets deep down the mind of anyone sitting in the audience. This intention to bring a qualitative change into the very way of analysing Hitlerism and Nazism in the Russian society is a very noble action of the director.
The need of such qualitative change of thinking regarding the Nazism in Russia and in general all across the former Soviet Union space is due to the utter lack of detailed knowledge of what had really happened in Germany with Hitler’s rise to power and how the Holocaust had been conducted. The Soviet society had highly insufficient knowledge about it, and many people are still lacking deeper understanding and detailed knowledge of the processes that led to the Holocaust and on how it had been executed. The Dodin’s performance is evoking the people’s thoughts, generates their intention to analyse on how the feast of the evil on earth known as the Nazi regime, has become possible.
The most important, the most emotional, the most unforgettable impression from that rare theatrical performance is the incredibly powerful line of Judith the Jewess which Dodin had built throughout the drama. The symbol of the Jewish tragedy in the Fear, Love, Despair is performed by Irina Tychinina with admirable dignity, taste and by most laconic means. But the life the actress has put into her role, the tears she cries so very personally there makes one to forget completely that it is a theatre in front of you.
We are seeing Judith from the beginning to the end of the performance. She appears there gracefully and disappears quietly; then she appears again – as our thoughts, our conscience, our memory which is never consoled over our brethren which had been violated so totally and so determinedly. Both the director and the actress had put in this outstanding performance their own innermost thoughts, ideas and feelings. They did it so honestly that the pain of the memory has overwhelmed everyone sitting in the MDT Theatre hall.
On the stage, distinguished Jewish woman being pale from the ongoing shock of her and her people’s pain is approaching the issue of life and death gently and decently. Her first questions are turned onto herself: “Could it be that it is mine fault, too? Being selfish and not that responsive on the injustices towards the others, did not I inflict the current disaster upon myself, as well? Is it the time to pay for being indifferent?..” And then, the known snowball of the Nazi axe cutting Jews from life, even if it is the very beginning of the process, years before the unfold of the Final Solution, is rolling in front of us in the dark theatrical hall, in sublime reflections of Judith-Tychinina, and gradually you are starting to feel the lack of oxygen around you, your heart is almost stopped, and you feel it as a stone. A stone which we are bringing to our graves. The Dodin’s stone is the one which we are bringing to the graves not existing. And I would be ever grateful to my friend for that.
The taste and measurement are essential qualities on anything done on the Holocaust. Elie Wiesel did not believe it could be performed or visualised in any way at all. The understanding of the way of the narrative demonstrated by Lev Dodin and his actors is superb. The sincerity with which the ultimate tragedy of the Jewish people is played by Irina Tychinina and supported by her partner Oleg Rjazantzev who plays the Judith’s German husband who is left helpless and staying behind in Germany while his wife is running for life off their country, with all his love melted into unspeakable, incurable despair, is rarely seen at any theatrical stage in the world.
There is no word said in the peak of the tragedy played in front of the breathless public, not a single word for a very long time. Only eyes, and hands, and some very subtle movements of the two people. And all the energy of sorrow accumulated in our memory is there, physically so to the degree that even some men in the audience just could not look onto the stage any longer, but are turning their faces off it dramatically, covering their completely tearful faces by hands.
I do not remember such degree of emotional experience seeing at any theatre in any country at any time. Such honest, simple, so overcharged emotionally and at the same time, contained with all the dignity experience of looking into the mirror of our memory is a rarity in any art. Done in theatre, with its immediate emotional magnetism it makes the performance into unforgettable human experience.
How on earth Lev Dodin did manage to create that scream of silence which is staying with you days after seeing the performance in St Petersburg, and seemingly will be staying with you for a long while?..
When we were talking after the premiere of Fear, Love, Despair Lev Dodin has told to my husband Michael and myself on how much did he read on the Nazism preparing for that so important for him work. “The most terrible thing which I found among all this reading were Hitler’s own speeches and writings. Such evil is of another nature. This is absolutely terrible, to me, worse than the materials of the Nuremberg Trial”,– said Lev Dodin.
This performance is not another piece of theatre. It is a very powerful, very intelligent, brave and articulated statement on memory, pain and tragedy of the Jewish people in the country where the Holocaust is still be not researched nor taught in the way it should. To bring our tragedy in its pulsating pain with such talent, devotion and understanding and to do in theatre that appeals to thousands viewers, is the important contribution into humanity. For that, and for all the flooding tears of so different people in an over-packed hall of the MDT-Theatre of Europe, our deepest Thank You to Lev Dodin and his team.
Dr Inna Rogatchi is the writer, film-maker and researcher, the President of the Rogatchi Foundation. She works on the themes of the Holocaust and post-Holocaust intensely. Among her major works are The Lessons of Survival, film on Simon Wiesenthal; Shining Souls, special exhibition project on the heroes of the Holocaust; forthcoming book Dark Stars, Wise Hearts on the post-Holocaust legacy. More information on the following sites: The Rogatchi Foundation – www.rogatchifoundation.org; Rogatchi Films – www.rogatchifilms.org; The Rogatchi Art Gallery – www.rogatchigallery.org