Performed by the Maly Theatre of St Petersburg at the 1996 Adelaide Festival

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

© all rights reserved

In both Gaudeamus and Claustrophobia, the Maly Theatre present us with a profusion of mixed messages. The company, youthful, vibrant and full of theatrical charm performs material which is often bitter, predatory, and seething with cynicism. The vignettes of life in the Construction Battalion in Gaudeamus show a vicious, divisive group of young people brutalised by circumstance. And the closing tableau with the company joining together for the medieval song, Gaudeamus , with its fraternal theme: youth is for rejoicing–leaves us so discomforted by the irony of the sentiment that it is hard to be sure of its intention.

In past festivals the theatre we saw from what was then the Soviet Union–the Rustaveli Company and the Georgian Film Actors studio–presented highly coded works resonant with sub-text. Richard III had a particular menace, Caucasian Chalk Circle a very specific absurdity. Productions of Gogol’s Government Inspector served, as they did for Meyerhold , to use indirectness to find direction out.

Claustrophobia, Maly Theatre’s newest touring production, is more discursive than Gaudeamus and even more problematic. Partly this is because it is been developed from a series of improvisation workshops which have produced memorable images but not an integrated piece. Also it is unclear when the company is objectively describing what they see and when they are presenting what they believe. This is not material which we can just let wash over us, especially when its is so engagingly staged. It is reasonable to ask what the production is signing to us, what it is endorsing and what rejecting. This may be clear to audiences closer to recent events in Eastern Europe, but when we bring to Claustrophobiaour garbled, CNN-distorted notions of contemporary Russian life, we are likely to find ourselves at sea.

The Company’s notes describe two tendencies at work in what is seen as a national condition of suffocation and psychosis. The civil decay, alcoholism and violence of the society- especially among the young–is matched also by a mood of idealism and communality. The dystopic struggles against the utopian in difficult ways. The themes the company proclaim are that art will find a way and love will find a way. In some respects Claustrophobia is like the Russian version of Hair, itself an expression of millenarianism only decipherable in the context the war in Vietnam.

Set in Room 319 of the Theatre Academy, a spacious white room with a high ceiling and a row of arched windows, Claustrophobia describes a succession of attempts to both break in and break out of the ritualised order of the space. The young troupe dressed in creamy linens and soft pastels are in a dance rehearsal when two young men in long black coats and berets appear through a side window. They announce themselves as Ubiquists–organisms who can adapt to life under any conditions.

Then the scene melts into a solo dance by a young man in a lavender dress who is joined by a large young woman also dressed in lavender. The music shifts from slide guitar to Tom Waits as the two cavort the stage, largely for the purposes of making the young woman look incongruous. It is a gratuitous false note. The following scene is a schoolroom science lesson on the properties of hydrochloric acid with the teacher gradually exposing her sexuality and arousing one of the young students. Then through the window come a series of young woman tearing off their bodices and frolicking with the now semi-naked teacher. If this is not mere exploitation then it is a cryptic message–neither integrated with a general sensuality in the whole group nor lucid as an image of sexual and gender liberation. With such a scene we can only guess at meanings as they collide with our own.

Other images, however, are painfully clear. As in Gaudeamus, addiction and alcoholism is depicted as a universal condition, as a kind of social white noise. A young woman, Zina is sitting outside a church with the crippled Katya. She prays to the Virgin Mary much to Katya’s derision. They are surrounded by a crowd of beggars near the church drinking vodka and cheap perfume and singing AC/DC songs. It is a powerful scene of incipient violence and despair which is then satirised as the group turns into a queue. Queueing is mockingly presented as the national pastime. Queues for anything–fish, fur coats, funeral plots, who cares–just make sure you buy two when you get there.

The longest queue is to Lenin’s tomb and one of the production’s strongest scenes, in its energy and sardonic comedy, is where a group of surgeons try to prevent Lenin from going mouldy. They apply their instruments–trumpets, French horns, saxophones and tubas–in a raucous attempt at revival. When Lenin does sit up the young actor playing the role cavorts on a swing with a young woman representing Nadia, Lenin’s wife, as they enjoy a reverie about happy days in Siberia.

Claustrophobia is given to such wild mood swings. A black figure performs a dance representing insomnia, asylum inmates argue about which great writer was most alcoholic. In one of the darkest scenes an army captain and his wife prepare a meal of pelmeni. They begin to drink in celebration and the husband turns violent and the wife hysterical as he jumps on a chair urinating on her head. It is a frightening spectre of domestic savagery. The final major sequence, where a model farm has lost all its stock through foot and mouth disease and the workers have now taken the place of the animals, also feeds the play’s nihilist and bitter satire.

Claustrophobia, directed with a kind of symphonic fluency by Lev Dodin, ravishingly designed by Alexey Poray-Koshits and splendidly lit by Oleg Kozlov and Dmitri Leitland, is a majestic work but an unresolved one. Like Gaudeamus, it hurtles between images of vehement social decay and those so lambent that they seem like caricature. The final image of the players–in a circle facing inwards, their hands quivering as a young woman is raised above them–verges on drama class corniness. But the sight of this troupe of performers adept in dance, music, and movement, singing like a professional choir, vigorous and talented in every way, is the production’s clearest sign. Maybe Claustrophobia is just like Russia itself at present–all over the place. But the Maly Theatre Company are artists of the highest calibre and we wait enthusiastically to see where their explorations take them next.

Murray Bramwell is a drama critic and lecturer in Drama at Flinders University.

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