Going that extra mile for audiences

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“We’ve just returned from Paris where we’ve been doing our new show Life And Fate, and tomorrow we leave for Norilsk in the Arctic country of the Gulag. In Paris when we opened it was 18ºC, in Norilsk when we open it will be -48, and if we survive Norilsk and polar bears don’t bite off anything important, we get to London three days later for Platonov.” The Maly Drama Theatre’s director Lev Dodin, speaking during a brief stopover at the company’s St Petersburg base (at a transitional -17ºC), takes his internationalism seriously. In recent years his company has been spending an increasing amount of time abroad.

For Dodin this is an important means of confirming – for actors and audience alike – the universality of the feelings portrayed on stage. “I know I’ve said this a thousand times, but I think theatre is one of the main channels of unity and means of repairing the divisions. For example, just now in January we did Uncle Vanya in Australia, and it’s worth travelling 50 hours on a flight to finally realise that yet again when you play for three hours, the tears are the same and the laughter is the same.”

British audiences can sample the Maly from tonight, when the company starts a week-long run at London’s Barbican. Dodin is looking forward to the encounter. “The British say: ‘We’re a very closed nation, we never react too much in the theatre’, but everyone opens up, everyone reacts . . . Last time we visited the Barbican with King Lear we found that three-quarters of the audience were the young ones, the teenagers and young audience members going into King Lear, which is not an ideal night out. I was pleasantly surprised with the, shall I say, passion with which the audience reached out to us, reaching out to them.”

The Maly’s visits to the Barbican are becoming almost an annual fixture: Uncle Vanya in 2005, Lear last autumn, and now Chekhov’s untitled early play, generally known in Britain as Platonov, which was discovered some years after his death. If left unedited, it’s a great sprawling mass of a piece – as Dodin says, “a novel with dialogue much more than a play for a stage; it spills over into Chekhov’s premonition of his plays to come. The first time I read Platonov was relatively late in my life – I think I was 25 or so – and I thought: ‘Why did he go on writing plays when he’d already written one with everything in it?’”

The director has set his production in a kind of fantasy Russian jazz age: the cast all play instruments and regularly interrupt, accompany or comment on the action by playing jazz standards. But memory is always one of the main strands in Chekhov’s drama, so why locate this play in a past that is unreal? “Yes, but it is very much Russia today as well. Every fantasy of our past is also a reflection of our thoughts today. It’s very important to know what used to happen 100 years ago, but you do have to realise that the notable things in life happened 100 years ago the same way they happen to you today.” A very Chekhovian notion, I interject. “That’s right; Chekhov is very much a living author for us. This present tense at its best incorporates all the centuries past. That’s why we could be performing this show 10 years on . . . trying to, while we survive.”

In fact, the production is already a decade into its life (and had been in full-scale preparation a further three years before its 1997 premiere). Many western audiences remain fascinated by the, to them, unfamiliar experience of a “theatre-home”, a permanent performing company with plays that stay in the repertoire for years. Platonov’s second visit to the UK, eight years after the first, gives audiences a chance to experience the continuity and development offered by this approach. “Development is filtering life and experience through,” says Dodin. “Over the 10 years this performance has been on, the actors have experienced so much personally, socially, historically. Apart from that, those actors have done very many new parts: Dostoevsky, yet another Chekhov, Shakespeare . . . and they bring all that when they go to perform Platonov again. If you use linear logic, then today should influence tomorrow, what is done before should influence what is done after; with theatre logic, what we’re trying to do is that whatever we do afterwards influences the production we’ve done beforehand.”

His dream, he says, would be to bring to bring the company’s full repertoire to London for a month or more. “That would give London the chance to see Platonov tonight and come back tomorrow or the day after and see the same actors they might have liked in King Lear or Dostoevsky; to return in two days to see Petr Semak, who was King Lear, do 18-year-old Mishka Pryaslin in Brothers And Sisters.”

The most obvious characteristic of the Maly Platonov is its wateriness. Dodin and his set designer Alexei Porai-Koshits have located the action on the river terrace of a country house, on the beach across the river . . . and in the river itself, lit by dozens of floating candles. Characters dive, gambol and are dunked in the water at virtually every opportunity. The water stands for sensuality, for liberation and escape from the personal entanglements enacted on land; the womanising protagonist finally dies suspended between the two elements, literally entangled in a fishing net. When the production was first staged in its home space, the St Petersburg
theatre had to be gutted and rebuilt to accommodate the water tank.

Here, too, Dodin’s internationalism played a part in the conception. The idea of using water in the production came to him in 1991, he says, when the company was performing Gaudeamus in London’s Riverside Studios. “My set designer and I would walk alongside the Thames at the back of the theatre. It was so beautiful and the water was flowing so magnificently, and I remember pointing to it and saying, ‘If we could have the same element onstage . . . ’ So in a way the idea was given birth on the banks of the Thames.

“Then several years after that we were performing in Athens and we were in a hotel on the seaside, and its restaurant was on the terrace; I saw its candles reflected in the sea, and I said to myself, ‘If only we could have the candles reflected in water in Platonov!’ That’s why travel is so important, because new pictures form in your head.”

I end our interview with what I think is a banal, wrapping-up question: with all these journeys, what kind of place does Dodin consider himself to be “at” now? To my surprise, he responds with Russian fatalism: “Well, I think I’m near the edge of the map.” What (I rejoin, trying to lighten things), near the bit where cartographers used to write “Here be dragons”? “Maybe,” responds Dodin, “but I feel a responsibility to go on in there.”

‘Platonov’ is at the Barbican Theatre, March 12-18. Tel (0)845 120 7550

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