Film Review: Stanislavski: Lust for Life – Russian Film Festival

Reviewer: Helen Tope

Writer and Director: Yuliya Bobkova

Centring on the Moscow Art Theatre where Stanislavski honed his famous acting method, the documentary Lust for Life examines the man and his work. Director and screenwriter Yuliya Bobkova not only features his legacy, but considers what should be done with it.

Bobkova’s technique throughout the documentary is to rely on interview footage from directors and acting coaches. The list of contributors includes talent from Lithuania, Russia, the UK and USA. Bobkova’s intention is to reiterate what a global influence Stanislavski was. As Moscow Art Theatre gets ready to stage a production of Chekhov’s The Seagull, the director Oskaras Korsunovas sits in the very chair used by Stanislavski; arguably the best seat in the house. He tells us that it forces his perspective on the play’s rehearsals: what works, what needs to be altered.

The play marks Stanislavski’s 50th anniversary, and Bobkova takes this opportunity to illustrate the impact of the acting coach’s work, also framing it against the political backdrop of his time.

Born in 1863, Stanislavski started off as a character actor. Co-founding the Moscow Art Theatre, he used the theatre to promote naturalistic work by playwrights such as Chekhov and Ibsen. Always looking to improve his own acting and directing technique, Stanislavski built a system, or method, of acting that pursued psychological realism. The ultimate aim was to create a ‘living person’ on stage.

Stanislavski experienced tremendous success on his 1922 tour of America, and Hollywood – unsurprisingly – latched onto the system. A more naturalised way of performing would be useful for actors working in front of a camera. Marlon Brando was a famous exponent of the method, but Bobkova brings us up to date, interviewing Ivana Chubbuck, the coach credited by Halle Berry for helping her win an Academy Award for Monster’s Ball.

Lust for Life does cover some of Stanislavski’s struggles – working within a Stalinist regime meant constant monitoring by the authorities, and the director narrowly avoided being executed by firing squad. But the bulk of the documentary leans into how his method moves forward in the 21st century.

Interviewing directors including Katie Mitchell and Declan Donnellan, they ruminate on the challenges theatre faces to its survival. Bobkova seems to find a consensus within the contributors, as they recognise the value theatre has, as modern life becomes increasingly depersonalised. There is an emphasis on not holding on too tightly to the method, but in using it as a base for further work. The agreement is not total, and Bobkova has selected her contributors well – each is thoroughly convinced of their own position. Bobkova’s intimacy with the Russian theatre world is admirable, but there is a lack of clarity that persists throughout the film. Bobkova assumes a level of knowledge, which doesn’t help the viewer pick their way through the narrative. While the documentary finds its feet in the later interviews, and they do make for great entertainment, as a starting point for anyone interested in Stanislavski, Lust for Life simply starts too far ahead.

Stanislavski: Lust for Life is screening at the Russian Film Festival via BFI Player from 12 November – 10 December.

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