Thursday, November 05, 2015

Egor Bulychev & the Others

Andy Burse as Egor Bulychev.  All photos by Robert Workman.
In Tuesday's Guardian, Mark Lawson writes about a perceived trend towards "German-style" re-imaginings of "modern classics", citing the National Theatre's new production conflating three plays by D.H. Lawrence, and Chichester's Young Chekhov Trilogy.  I suspect he would have been deeply shocked, although hopefully also stimulated, to see what we got up to with Gorky's late play Egor Bulychev and the Others at Rose Bruford last week.

I'm more than happy to admit the Teutonic influence.  After all, Bruford calls itself "London's international drama school", I'm a Visiting Professor and I run an intercultural theatre company - it would seem logical enough that we should look beyond the British approach to naturalism.  Thomas Ostermeier's re-workings of Ibsen were very much in my mind as I started to think through Gorky's text   - he deliberately creates a hyper-real contemporary world in which to locate these pieces, recovering the social and political radicalism that made them so controversial in the first place.  I was also thinking about Simon Stone's version of The Wild Duck for Belvoir (recently filmed as The Daughter), which, although its approach is psychological rather than social and political, is a lesson in how form can be altered as a way of giving a piece the feel of contemporary narrative.  However, I suspect that even these productions, and certainly the ones cited by Lawson, are much closer than our Gorky was to what the writer had expected to see on stage.  It is one thing to modernise a play, either through a change of context or through a structural shift.  It is quite another to do both, in a deliberate attempt to turn the original inside out.  We deliberately renounced what Lawson called "absolute fidelity to what a playwright's intentions are perceived to be."
Austin Caley as Stefan, Katie Trump as Varya
Or maybe not entirely…  That "perceived to be" is a very interesting phrase.  Perceived by whom?  Intentions, after all, are very slippery things.  People lie about their intentions - even to themselves.  As Nesta Jones said at our post-show discussion, sometimes a play can be found to contain a "secret play" that subverts and attacks the apparent meaning.  Sometimes that is the play that has to be produced, especially when, as 21st century people in dialogue with a classic, we find that there are aspects of "what a playwright's intentions are perceived to be" with which we find ourselves in profound disagreement.  Some of my student cast had just emerged from working on The Merchant of Venice: you cannot simply buy into that text, knowing what we now know.  No more, I think, can we buy into the apparent meaning of late Gorky - plays written after his return to Stalin's Russia…  My first night card from Michael Earley was a painting of Stalin sitting at Gorky's deathbed.  I do not want Stalin there at my side when I croak.
Gloria Obianyo as Nkolika, Andro Crespo as Pedro, Celeste Collier as Georgie
Naturalism has been sanitised.  It has been forgotten that, originally, naturalism was the avant-garde.  We have come to think of “realistic” performance as a default position.  We have diluted it into family drama and soap opera, psychological thriller and “reality” TV.  In this process, we have lost touch with the radical origins of the form.  The English tradition of naturalistic performance eschews the socio-political dimension in favour of psychological “character study”.  We dramatise Freud.  But Freud’s ideas are diametrically opposed to those of Zola, Ibsen and Gorky.  For Freud, if you are (say) depressed, then that is your own fault – it’s to do with some internal problem in your personal make-up.  Psychoanalytical performance denies our relationship to others – the social, political and spiritual links that underpin our lives.  Maybe your depression is actually to do with living in a massively unequal society that saddles its youth with enormous debts; with the failure of mainstream culture to engage with the complexity of modern Britain; with God having absented himself from our dialogue with our own mortality.  In the 21st century, we have to revisit naturalism in a way that reinvigorates this more radical agenda.
Gloria Obianyo as Nkolika
In an age dominated by filmic narratives, the structures of naturalism are a barrier, not an aid, to contacting what is realistic in Gorky.  Because he is bound into a three-act, single set structure, he has to put himself through incredible contortions to engineer people into Egor Bulychev’s dining room at appropriate moments to encounter one another.  Take that cumbersome scaffolding away, and a series of short, punchy scenes is revealed.  Re-order those scenes, and the play begins to reveal its extraordinary modernity.  So we found ourselves re-imagining Egor as a Russian oligarch running an investment management company in London, with a family of calculating super-rich eager to pounce on his wealth when cancer finally overcomes him in the Wellington Hospital.  The loyal maid Glasha became his PA and lover Georgie; and his sister-in-law's convent was re-located to Nigeria, where it was attacked by Boko Haram.  The deserting soldiers who roam across Russia in Gorky's text, striking fear into Egor's family, became the refugees fleeing into Europe - and the gamekeeper who supports them became the family chauffeur.  Cars make great locations for claustrophobic scenes of intense argument.
Kizzy Dunn as Shura
Above all, I felt that we had to move Egor's illegitimate daughter Shura to the centre of the play.  Gorky indicates that she somehow moves towards the Russian Revolution of 1917 - but her process of conversion all happens offstage and becomes difficult to understand or identify with.  By shifting some of the scenes from the first Act to a new position near the end of the play, we were able to show her being used and abused by the self-interested money-grabbers around Egor's death bed, and so made sense of her radicalisation.  The revolutionary character Pablo (Yakov in the original) only appeared towards the end, as the London society we had created tipped over into the British Revolution of 2017. At the same point, naturalism gave way to a more dream-like style: was this revolution real, or was it Egor's dying dream?  Was the stylistic shift in itself perhaps a symptom of leaving behind a culture that has been proved decadent and wanting?
Final scene - The Revolution
I love doing drama school productions.  It's where the future is made.

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