Writer: Vasiliy Shukshin
Director: Alvis Hermanis
Reviewer: Gus Mitchell
Russia is not a country primarily known for its humour. Even its most famous ‘comic’ playwright (Chekhov) wrote primarily of wasted and frustrated lives, lost, lonely individuals, and the universal pity of our self-delusions. It was with great interest and a slight wariness, then, that I sat down for Shukshin’s Stories, a three-hour extravaganza adaptation of eight short stories from a Russian writer who is not Chekhov – the Soviet author (also filmmaker and actor) Vasiliy Shukshin (1929-1974) – little known outside of his native country. The adaptation is the work of Theatre of Nations, one of Russia’s leading companies, based in Moscow and visiting London for the first time at the Barbican. They will also be presenting Chekhov’s Ivanov during their stay.
Shukshin’s eight tales (performed in Russian with English surtitles) are evocations of a significant portion of Soviet Russia which is often neglected in the gulag-driven histories we’re so used to. It is the vast, unsung world of ordinary people. These are the quiet, rural population of Russia, the people who keep their head down, finding genuine meaning, outside the political hellscape, in what matters to them. They are tied to village, community, family, friends and land. Shukshin was of peasant stock himself, hailing from the village of Srostki in Siberia, where the stories are set. The company travelled there to meet and imbibe the descendants of Shukshin’s people, and large blow-up portraits of contemporary Srostkians serve as the set’s backdrop, shifting with each story.
Directed by Latvian Alvis Hermannis, with a set consisting of a long bench which is the anchor of the actions, the production is dedicatedly ensemble. The actors are not identified by their roles. However, the distinctive figure of the Theatre’s artistic director and lead actor, Evgeny Mironov, can easily be singled out for his versatile energies and his channelling various incarnations of mad, sad and sometimes bad clownish types. The whole company are on fiery form, alternating song-and-dance with very physical comedy, concluding the show with darker tones. Clothed as modern-day Russians, they reflect back at us our own lives as ordinary people today, hilariously trying to remain dignified in a world increasingly tarred-and-feathered by mad politics.
Communicating the everyday yet idiosyncratic foolishness of a people is a hard trick to pull off, however. I felt a palpable culture, not to mention language, clash. However much we wish our experience and foibles would appear instantly relatable across nations, it often isn’t so simple. I can imagine, as a rough example, a Russian audience responding with perplexity were we to show them Monty Python with surtitles that often seem to have been hastily done by Google Translate. The stories’ hilarity is clearly intense given the rollicking response and final standing ovation from the numerous Russian punters. But I seldom felt it, or the more enduring emotions which these people evoke.
It is unfortunate for a show sporting such accomplished and detailed acting and direction that the timing and accuracy of the surtitles so often let it down. Without completely holding my gaze to the screen (and it is nice to look at the stage action once in a while) I would lose track of the story in a flash, so frequent were the skip-aheads or delays. Appreciating this difference in culture and perspective requires emotional investment, and these technical issues make it no easier.
This will probably have been fixed at the show’s next outing, and that’s a shame, as such an award-studded and internationally feted production would have probably impressed me more had I seen it at its best. But I was also left pondering whether Shukshin might simply not translate well at all. Are the stories simply too deeply steeped in Russian idiosyncrasy to carry over to a foreign audience the first time around? With the misfortune of the surtitle situation, I will likely never know.
Runs until 9 October 2019 | Image: Sergey Petrov