GREAT THEATER CREATED THROUGH ZHOLDAK’S LENSES

Isabella Rothberg

HBL newspaper (Hufvudstadsbladet is the highest circulation Finish and Swedish newspaper in Finland issued in Helsinki), 25 November 2011

While Anton Chekhov brings a man down back to earth, Andriy Zholdak shows his grandeur. Woman’s perception of his staging of Uncle Vanya may be disgusting, but craftsmanship is breathtaking.

       Probably the world looks fantastic through Andriy Zholdak’s magnifying glasses. All components in Anton Tjechov’s play are larger and finer on the stage. Set design alone suggests that all the hype around this Ukrainian stage director is justified. The environment at the Klockrike Theater is simultaneously nature-like and surrealistic, every scene is a contradiction. Rural background has been blown up: springs protrude comically in cascades from holes in walls. Jussi Johnsson’s uncle Vanya is a rustic dream with beard and linen dungarees and village sound environment. We hear simultaneously mooing cows, clucking hens, buzzing bumblebees at the highest sound volume. Untreated pine surfaces add a Nordic touch to this Russian village and a swimming pool in the middle makes the stage resemble a Finnish sauna. The pool is there as a reminder: people are pitiful creatures originating from water like tadpoles. Everything is exaggerated. Vodka is spouting and Jan Korander’s loose mustache is huge. Even the word “mermaid” which is left as a rudiment in the Swedish translation has been magnified and Krista Kosonen’s Yelena equipped with a glittering fish tail. Themes are also overdone. Ultimately, Uncle Vanya revolves around the question of how one should live his life. Should he spend his time at card games or work from dawn to dusk? Do arts and sciences bring happiness in life?Or it simply does not matter at all?As a rhetorical question of Korander’s Astrov: ”those who will live a hundred or two hundred years after us and whom we pave the way for, will they remember us with gratitude?” It is enjoyable that a self-centered person does that. Anders Larsson’s professor puts the life of other characters in motion, but he himself goes out of all this process apparently unchanged. He simply sneaks around, picks up objects, thinks and makes notes.

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       Zholdak’s farce. Chekhov’s essence is thus brought to the utterance. The tragedy becomes an emotional opera and a pure comic farce with drunks, nude women, buttocks and breasts with a portion of disability humor. In all his mysteriousness Zholdak is completely understandable. The driving force is repressed sexual desires. The triangle between the beautiful stepmother Yelena, the plain daughter Sonya and charming doctor Astrov creates a tension field. And disappointment also comes here. The contest between the “ugly Sonya” and the “beautiful Yelena” is exaggerated and the cause seems predictable. Here it is not even Snow White and wicked queen trying to destroy each other, but two diffident small girls with a trembling lower lip. Alma Pöysti’s Sonya is first of all a biological creature. Her goal is to make love and when Astrov gives her just a little release over her naked breast, she pees over herself. In other words, Freud could freely dance on the stage.There is always a male gaze sweeping over the female body.Kosonen’s Yelena also suffers from sexual frustration and her fish movements in water in front of Astrov’s wistful gaze acts as an animal mating ritual.Women’s power seems to depend on men.Yelena reigns with glitter and gold, but after a pastime on a straw bed her game is lost. All that is left is an irresolute girl frantically rubbing off herguilt.These are girl games in a rather disgusting male fantasy world. The female body is strongly sexualized and set in relationship to the man. And at the same time, teamwork of Kosonen and Pöysti is where Zholdak’s craft shines brightest. So much talent is extracted from their interaction and it is clear that this is also Kosonen’s and Pöysti’s showdown.

       Breathtaking personal direction. The director is present at the highest degree, not just because he sits, whispers and gestures in the hall darkness during the premiere. He is noticeable in actors’ characters. They are constantly alert and permanently on edge. They seem almost mercilessly pressed while their absolute devotion makes the four-hour long show so dainty theater. Krista Kosonen indeed forces to silence, she is totally freed from any kind of manners. Just when you get tired of her tormented eyes and cool appearance near the pool, she emerges in the comedy. She becomes a cartoon character with wide eyes and stylized body language. A simple throat cleaning becomes an art in her interpretation. It will be now interesting to see how Linda Zilliacus, who will also play Yelena, handles the role. When Zilliacus goes out to the stage is unclear yet as of the time of writing.

       Impermanences. Cues are mainly in Jarl Hemmer’s poetic translation, but the speech often competes with sounds made of flesh: sometimes pulp being chewed while the words are pronounced, sometimes in a more figurative form when bodies and gestures allude to depressed impulses. It is as if Zholdak wanted to try every conceivable form of communication to make accessible what is contained in the play but not in words (”I have written it down, everything is right there”, Chekhov used to say). Rotten fruits and withered roses at the foreground resemble a Dutch life style of impermanence, that every human will die. This is Chekhov’s voice. He takes a human on the earth, while Zholdak lifts him up and shows his greatness. 

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