ANDREY ZHOLDAK - PRIEST OR MADMAN?

by NOEL WITTS 

the founder-director of the Department of Performing Arts at De Montfort University, Leicester, UK. He is Senior research Fellow at the London Institute. He has written and broadcast extensively for the BBC on theatre in east and central Europe, and is working on a book about the arts under communism. He is co-author of The Twentieth Century Performance Reader(Routledge, 1996, 2002)

“No other director working in the European theatre arouses such contradictory feeling as Andrey Zholdak.......In the Ukrainian theatre the emergence of a firebrand like Zholdak is like the sudden sprouting of a coconut palm in a potato patch What is to be done with him? How can he be used?“ (Marina Davydova, Izvestia, 2003)

“Here, as far as I was concerned, was a cocky director showing off. I was told he was some crazy Ukrainian...... The coherence and power of ‘The Marriage’ was what convinced me that I was in the presence, not of a tiresome show-off, but of an outstanding teacher and an outstandingly inventive... director” (Ian Herbert, London Theatre Record, 2003)

         Remarks by two skeptical critics turned around in 2003 by the work of a big, shaven man followed by a big labrador dog named Fanny. One hesitates to enter the fray, but a visit to Kharkov last March to see a selection of Zholdak’s work, combined with the evident difficulty he is finding in getting the work the exposure it deserves, persuaded me to write this essay. I teach a course of Eastern European Theatre at a UK university - the kind of course that looks at the tradition of Meyerhold, Brecht, Grotowski , and Kantor. Of recent years I have added two more names to the list: the Romanian Silviu Purcarate, and now Andrey Zholdak.

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Why should we be interested in the work of a crazy Ukrainian?

         It has taken some time for Andrey Zholdak’s theatre productions - they are hardly plays, although they take their inspiration, albeit spasmodically, from classic play texts - to find their way west from the Ukraine. They have been seen in Grenoble and Groningen, but never in Paris or London or Edinburgh. I have caught them at the International Festival in Sibiu, Romania, where they are given pride of critical place next to the work of Silviu Purcarete. Wherever I have seen them there has been an air of anticipation and excitement, audiences of many young people, and usually standing ovations at the end. The performances nearly always involve dozens of actors, elaborate props, elegant costumes, long repetitive passages, much violence and brutality, alongside an eclectic choice of usually recorded music which seems to have come from a rambling CD collection, mostly from the eighties. Often there is baroque music, often English, especially sung by counter-tenors.  And there are many animals - usually stuffed - and children, and toys, and sound scores of nature and farmyards and birds of the forest. There is much dry ice, usually a set of moveable flats, many chairs, and in one case dust and stones falling from above the stage. The shows usually last two to three hours. The mix is unfamiliar in that the work seems often to bear little relation to the stated texts - currently “Hamlet”, “Othello”, Gogol’s “Marriage”, Turgenev’s “A Month in the Country, Solzenytsyn”s “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”, Dostoyevsky’s “The Idiot”. The experiences are highly physical and above all visual. There is not usually much text.  Perhaps this is the key to much of the denigration of Zholdak by his European critics: they just don’t know what to make of him. Is he a pretentious and demanding idiot or an artistic genius? In many countries the jury is still out, but there is a slow realization that, as he produces more and more confrontational surprises,  he may be the latter rather than the former.

       Then there is the Ukrainian dimension. Although he trained in Moscow, Kiev has always, until now, been Zholdak’s power base. A country - the ‘breadbasket of Europe’ -ravaged by  Stalin’s great famine, the Second World, the Chernobyl disaster, the ineffectualness of its first independent president Leonid Kravchuk, the apparent untrustworthiness of its present one, Leonid Kuchma. Now it is a ‘fragile, poverty-stricken buffer-state in a new divide between an introverted West and an aggressive unstable Russia” , says Anna Reid in her book ‘Borderland’. Kharkov, Zholdak’s new home, where he is presenting his work, and the Ukraine’s second city,  is a kind of communist throw-back with a vast statue of Lenin in its main square, a university with many Korean students,  and  a number of empty casinos. The Ukraine is known in the West as the final resting-place of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya,  for the ravine of  Babi Yar, for the  seaside resort of Yalta where the Big Three carved up Europe at the end of the Second World War, and  for the steps at Odessa in Eisenstein’s film “Battleship Potemkin”.  It is always a surprise to find that Nicolai Gogol and Isaac Babel were both born in the Ukraine,as was Bruno Schultz. What then can the role of the theatre be in such depressed circumstances?  Does the Ukraine need theatre at all, and of what kind?

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       Zholdak sees himself as a pioneer. He talks of modern theatre needing a ‘universal actor who can rehearse and play everything’. He is notorious for his insistence on perfection from all who work with him. He rehearses with his actors for ten hours at a time, with only one short break, in which actors are not allowed food or drink. He works with a set of practices which are designed to ‘destroy’ the actor so that the performer becomes a physically skilled empty vessel which can therefore respond with accuracy to the artist's demands.  Actors learn to breathe ‘ with all five centres of their soul’, and to act according to Grotowki’s instruction, ‘as if it were the last moment of their life’. As their freedom is restored they can release sparks of energy from every part of the body.  The training programme for the universal actor, devised by Zholdak, runs as follows:

1. Control of one’s body

2. Mastering the system of breathing during performance

3. Well trained psychophysical reactions

4. Mastering the technique of improvisation and independent action without interrupting the performance and changing it every 5-10 seconds with a necessary 60 second return to the main topic

5.Ability to control one’s voice, to shift to different diapasons and to master the technique of vibration.

6. A healthy nervous system (to have a reflection of  a sunbeam inside you; to be able to control its journey in you)

7. Paradoxically a universal actor is a kind, optimistic, and open-hearted actor on the one part, and reserved, indifferent, and a cold warrior on the other.

8 An actor who can work with his/her eyes, but not grimace, and can create and control pauses.

9. He/she is able to play everything: a man, a woman, an old woman, a wardrobe, a bird etc. irrespective of one’s age, nationality, sex, sexual orientation.

10. He/She has a contact with the Divine Spirit during rehearsals and performances, from which wonder-energy originates, continuously radiating from the actor, its permanent presence (like a waterfall or a spring)

11. Ability to present different schools of theatre: living through the role and keeping away, a rite, theatre of demonstration, symbolic theatre, physical theatre, theatre of dance etc.

12. Human factor or human spirit (“Smells like human sprit”, evil witches used to say in the old days), human vibration. Any craftiness, anger, aggression, envy, meanness appearing during rehearsals must be eliminated ( even by dismissing the actor from the group!) (1)

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(1)Andrey Zholdak, Notes to Experimental Theatre Showcase, Kharhov, 2003

         This training programme is far from being the invention of a madman. It speaks to us of an amalgam of all those practical theatrical ideals of the great theatre innovators of the twentieth century: the physicality and precision of Meyerhold, the spirituality of Grotowski, the need for universality of Edward Gordon Craig, and of Tadeusz Kantor, his follower. At the back of this is the aim of these artists and, I suspect also of Zholdak, to transcend conventional theatre and then to create something resembling a new theatre work, a total visual and aural experience, which gets us somewhere near the world of none other than Richard Wagner and his idea of the ‘gesamtkunstwerk’, where the theatre becomes a kind of temple dedicated to a transformative experience which alters the perception of the audience who experience it. And indeed there is often something Wagnerian and operatic about most of Zholdak’s work, with its heavy reliance on an eclectic selection of music, and its use of music as a major element in the work. But unlike most of his precursors Zoldak seems to like to rely on classical texts as pretexts for his work; a hangover, one must assume, from the Russian tradition of the ‘great’ directors such as Stanislavsky, Meyerhold, Lyubimov, Yefremov, and Vassilyev. And with this last name we come to what is probably the greatest educational influence on the young Zholdak, who studied under Vassilyev in Moscow in the seventies, having first graduated from the School of Arts in Kiev, where he wanted to be a film director. (The Zholdak family is related to the Tarkovskys.) Zholdak stayed with Vassilyev for 4 years. Anatoli Vassilyev, still working in Moscow, became one of the great imagistic directors of the pre and post- communist era, with productions such as “Hoopla” which toured Europe in the eighties.  He , along with Lev Dodin, has been characterised by Anatoli Smeliansky as one of the Russian ‘gravediggers’, who arrived and did the job of burying , to a large part, the ideas of the sixties, presumably of those theatre makers who attempted to subvert the social realism of their political bosses.  Vassilyev, as Smeliansky points out, ‘works at the interface between religion and knowledge’ , whose school in Moscow resembles a monastery in its artistic discipline and demands. Here was where Zoldak learned to demand so much of actors, to train and rehearse with such intensity,and,  one may assume, where he learned to utilise his demanding personality against the bureaucrats who would stand in his way.

         Zholdak or “Andriy Zholdak-Tobilevich 1V”, as he sometimes styles himself, comes from an old Ukrainian family which  is among the Ukraine’s elite, with a large house and a big library, where his love of Russian/Ukrainian literature was both encouraged and prescribed. There was also the cinematic mind, enthusiasms,  and training,  which is shown to such effect in productions such as “A Month in the Country”.  In his early years he did adaptations of “Carmen” (1996) and  “The Good Soldier Schweik”(1996) but really first came to  national prominence with ‘The Three Sisters”, shown at the Baltic House Festival in St Petersburg in 1999, where also he showed “Taras Bulba” in 2000.  In 2002 his production of “The Seagull” won the award for best performance at the Torun Festival in Poland. But the first work of his I saw was at the Sibiu Festival in Romania in 2000, when, working with a collection of local actors, led by Constantin Chiriac, he gave his version of Dostoyevsky’s “The Idiot”, a dark, grotesque piece , played for part of the time on a darkened stage, with the marriage of the two main characters was followed by a send off from outside the theatre in a carriage and horses ( escorted by the Sibiu police).A puzzling experience which was not not helped by the lack of translation from the Romanian language, of which there was, on this occasion, quite a lot. Then the following year, with the same company in Sibiu he did “Othello?!” (note the punctuation) . By this time the grotesquerie had turned to surrealism, with a whole act played between Othello and Iago wearing First World War pilots’ goggles. Already it was clear to me that, although the texts were important as starting points,  Zoldak thinks in pictures and likes to fill his stage with a large ensemble of actors often in full  physical flight from something or chasing an unknown protagonist. The work is highly choreographed and charged with a sense of the unknown, as the audience, while relishing the physical and visual imagination, soon learn to forget about any narrative. In Sibiu the young Romanian audiences welcomed this release from Romania’s love of textual theatre, and which  brought them a new realisation that the theatre can be exciting and visual fun, rather than simply worthy and educational. I’ll come back to its impact on young audiences later in this essay.

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          In 2001 Zholdak was invited to create a piece with the repertory theatre of Cherkassy, a small Ukrainian town, whose theatre manager had thrown down a challenge to the director that he would not work with such actors. Zholdak came to the town, laid down his rehearsal conditions to the actors, who accepted them, and proceeded to start work on Gogol’s “The Marriage”, with the company of about 20 and their house band. The final piece, though it owes its title to Gogol, is essentially a nearly wordless examination  of marriage where groups of actors  in wedding dress, reflect on marriage as a game, as final commitment, as sexual encounter, as loss, as unfaithfulness, as something departed from to war, and as final expiration in death; all this in a setting which resembles some kind of wedding hotel complete with hotel band playing banal tunes.There is much dancing, a little singing, long repetitive  movement sections, music by Lloyd Webber, Bizet, tangos, mournful popular songs; there is  a woman taunted in a cage, many suitcases, a bored man watching football on TV.  At the same time there is menace and  war, with dust constantly  falling on the hotel floor and, when the menfolk finally leave for the front, rocks and stones. The men return to find the women among this detritus and destruction, and in a final formal sequence fall dead around the white wedding table, while functionaries spraying disinfectant wander around and servants carry the characters offstage on stretchers to the strains of  Sir Hubert Parry’s anthem “I was Glad”,  which  has a grand imperialist sound and is sung at every UK coronation in Westminster Abbey, London. The  unmistakable conclusion is that this is, after all, a set of reflections not just on marriage, but on  the way war erupts and disturbs even the most imperialist rituals. The final image of the band, wearing anti-dust masks,  carrying their instruments and walking slowly off the stage while the Parry music sounds and the war dust continues to fall, is one of the most memorable images of my theatre-going life. The stage pictures work as dance might, or as Pina Bausch’s fantasies do, where often the visual image is what carries the ‘narrative’ performance text.

        All this leads me to assume that Zholdak’s mind is as eclectic as his choice of music, and that his influences come from worlds away from the Russian theatre tradition in which he was trained. This is a world that followers of Robert Wilson or Pina Bausch or Anna Teresa de Keersmaker understand : but this  is  also a world created by a member of the post-communist generation in the former Soviet Union,  working in a tradition of non-verbal, imagistic theatre with specially trained performers of all ages.

        In 2002 Zholdak presented “Hamlet.Dreams”, his two hour take on “Hamlet”, which is again a highly charged and energetic physical piece, with much ensemble movement, Hamlet as a half naked  golden god, Ophelia as a young pioneer, and a black crow cavorting around the stage. There is much playing with semaphore signs and flags, suitcases and chairs,  and in the final sequence the entire cast bathe themselves as a gesture of washing away the events of the play. Once again we have a succession of images, loosely connected with the play, a minimum of text, much frantic music, portraying a decadent court, where sexuality is often uncertain, and the playing has great physical power. The movement, once again highly choregraphed, falls somewhere between mime and dance. As ever with Zholdak, part of the enjoyment lies in watching the physical exertions of the performers in the same way as Brecht used to exort us to watch theatre as if we were watching a boxing match.The piece itself is an exhilarating two hours reflection on some of the themes of the play, and grips an audience much in the way that Calixto Beito’s Birmingham “Hamlet” did at last year’s Edinburgh Festival. (In fact the two would make a formidable double bill...)

       In 2003 Zholdak, at the invitation of the Mayor, moved to Kharkov, to work with the actors of the Berezil Theatre, where the legendary theatrical genius Les Kurbas worked in the 1930s before he was reprsssed. The invitation was to revive the theatre and to give to Kharkov some new theatrical impetus, a far-reaching decison on the part of the mayor  and  a genuine example of cultural regeneration. The result again was that, having met Zholdak and agreed his working conditions, the actors now find themselves a centre of attention in the city, their hopes revived along with the fortunes of the theatre. Zholdak made  two productions at the theatre in five months, a mammoth achievement for any company, let alone one which had been languishing for some time with a repertoire which hardly attracted anyone under 40. Now the theatre is full weekly with the young audience that Zholdak has brought to watch his shows, an audience that craves, in this corner of the Ukraine, something innovative and something to awake the imagination.

        One of the first two pieces Zholdak has created for the Kharkhov audience is “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” after Alexander Solzenytsin. This two part fantasy starts with an evocation of the atmosphere of the Russian gulag, when the audience is led through the basement of the theatre past sets of barking alsatian dogs to emerge into a cage-filled stage space where the camp inmates are being chased around by warders with whistles. This terrifying spectacle lasts some time, after which we are treated to another set of reflections on the camps - on jealousy, abasement, doomed love affairs, the building and  then immediate destruction of a dividing wall, the sheer evil of those in charge, and the hopelessness of those imprisoned. Against all this an operatic soprano stalks the balcony singing Mozart, while children rush around wearing  rabbit costumes. The second half becomes more surreal, with a large part taken up with a banquet where men in dark suits consume vast quantities of hard-boiled eggs, watched by women as nurses. There are sexually explicit scenes and scenes of grotesque farting. By the end Ivan Denisovich is buried by two women who cover him in stones. All this is accompanied by, in Ian Herbert’s words. “a continuous if random sound track of pop tunes, madrigals, aircraft noise and lord knows what else”.

       In “A Month in the Country”, Zholdak’s next work for Kharkov, which is loosely, very loosely, based on Turgenev’s play,  Zoldak has created, along with his Bulgarian Stage Designer, Tatyana Domova-Tita, a series of some 30 plus tableaux, usually set against bare white flats at the back of the stage, portraying various key moments from the play, which are then elaborated by Zholdak. None of the scenes lasts more than a few minutes, some are entirely static, but the effect is ‘meditative, lyrical, ironic, and beautiful’ (Davydova). These are in the nature of responses or footnotes to the play. One scene appears, the lights go out, another appears and so on. The whole piece lasts about three hours . There are sounds of the country, stuffed animals, copulating  wooden mastiffs , children. A woman flies above the stage, snow follows after her. An enormous table covered with a white table-cloth is seen from above with everything that stands on it and everyone who sits at it. A three-dimensional room turns 180 degrees on its back and the characters have to cling on to the walls.Characters appear as fish or birds. There is elegance contrasted with rurality. Sometimes characters wear faceless masks. There is the clash of metal music, slow motion, elaborate costumes...... The piece is like a dream peopled by Magritte-like images and , like a dream, it distorts as it proceeds. You watch , not to follow the story, but to follow the series of sometimes connected, sometime disconnected, images where the physical playing of the actors becomes the essence of the audience experience. Zholdak has said, somewhat disengeneouly, that he would like members of the audience to be able to move in an out, to see one act one night, and another the next night and so on. In fact the problem is that he has  created a form of theatrical installation, outside time, where the changing images are not in need of any connection but a few words now and then to orientate onself. It is an astonishing piece by any standards, attempting to allow entry not simply into part of Turgenev’s world, but into Zholdak’s visual reflections on that world.

 

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        Zholdak is quite clear about what he is  doing and why the orthodox theatre establishment finds his work such an intrusion in the otherwise clear world of actors, texts, characters. He says

I believe that modern theatre as well as modern music, modern prose, and modern cinematography should always be in search of new forms and new topics. We are aware of the cases (like Pavich or Kornel from Sweden) when novels are written vice versa or a novel doesent  exist and we read only the notes, remarks about the novel. One of my greatest impressions was from Kornel’s book “The Way to Paradise”. The principle of the novel is that the novel is lost and there are only the notes left, 150 of them. And  by reading the remarks the reader begins to understand and to see the  novel, the novel which doesnt exist. I think its a sign of genius. It’s quite a new dimension. And I think it resembles my work with the play by Turgenev. Our Turgenev in Kharkov is in fact remarks about the play of Turgenev. (2)

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(2)Andrey Zholdak, Notes to Experimental Theatre Showcase,Kharkov, 2003

           He also realises that, in creating a seemingly unlinked series of tableaux, he has in fact begun approaching the idea of a theatrical installation, which audiences may sample as they wish. He would like to turn the theatre into an art gallery where

the audience is free to come at any part of the play and is free to leave as well - some people like the fifth act, others like the first one. It will be an element of our advertisement in the future : a spectator who has bought a ticket for the play can visit its different parts during the month. There are further projects : we plan to play the first act at the beginning of the month the second and  the third acts in two weeks, and the epilogue at the end of the month. (3)

        With these ideas it is easy to see why the Russian theatrical community is so divided about his work. He is presenting new environmental ideas to a community for whom theatre has always meant, and to a large extent still does, the quiet sitting in an auditorium for two hours listening to people talk on stage. Zholdak, with his radical visions, is speaking to another type of audience which is now beginning to question the function of large theatre buildings. (The performance of “Ivan Denisovich” which I saw in Kharkov took place in the rehearsal studio of the theatre, after the audience had been led through the bowels of the theatre past the barking alsatians).

         His training programme for work such as this, as we have seen,  is rigorous and demands of the actors that they become total performers, able to create absolutely precise stage pictures, which extend even to the choreographed curtain calls, which only break when Zholdak himself comes on stage with his designer. Like Tadeusz Kantor, another visual artist turned theatre-maker, Zholdak is often recalling the ideas of the English visionary designer and writer Edward Gordon Craig. He talks of

an attempt to create an actor-marionette, a world where there is no place for a human being. I feel our future will require a superman , a super- marionette. Human beings possess something more than divine force inside and I want to realise this philosophical idea with the help of the 

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(3)Andrey Zholdak, passim 

the actors and the space, and my desire is to make the next play for half a year as a film where we would build out beforehand every centimetre, every step of an actor, his every breath. Imagine a sea after a storm : you walk calmly along the beach and you see that some things have just been cast on the shore : stones, sea-nettles, chips....... the fact is that I influence the most subtle nerves of a spectator; there  are many visual pauses, much light and breathing which effect the hidden centres (usually asleep) of a person. Nowadays people come to the  theatre and react on the words of the actors, on their movement and bustle. There is no bustle in our Turgenev....... (4)

      This necessity to create not only new theatre forms but also a new consciousness on the part of the audience reflects a European-wide need to cross boundaries, to enable ideas from the largely static discipline of  traditional fine art to be influenced by the world of video and film. It is no coincidence that the cross-disciplinary world of opera is now so popular. It is also interesting that the names most often mentioned by Zholdak are those of : Craig, Fellini, Dali, Artaud, and Grotowski; a mixture of the grotesque, the spiritual, and the surreal.

           Zholdak’s work is also that of the new generation of theatre makers after the deprivations of communism. He was born in 1962, so this means that half his life has been lived in the world of theatre which developed in Russia under Stalin and his successors. This theatre, bulding on Russian authoritarian traditions, espoused the idea of the theatre as a church, with the director as priest. Each major director would have his own theatre, troupe of actors, acolytes, tame critics, specific audience. The names  are those we all remember : from Stanislavsky and Meyerhold to Anatoly Efros, Oleg Yefremov, Yuri Lyubimov, Mark Zakharov, and Kama Gingas. Then came the “gravediggers” Vassilyev and Dodin, who bridged the collapse of communism and the rise of imitative capitalism, and whose work, in order to survive, needed to tour beyond Russia. The clash of the old theatre priest system and the new capitalists claimed many victims, not the least Vassilyev, who while teaching Zholdak  had lost interest in audiences,  and had retreated into laboratory research on Povorskaya Street, Moscow, and whose major production in 1995 was  Plato’s ‘Republic’, closely followed by ‘The Lamentations of Jeremiah’, which was a theatrical prayer on the theme of the ‘ solitary, comfortless, and despised Jerusalem’ Growing up among these clashing 

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(4) Andrey Zholdak, passim

generations with capitalism knocking at the Moscow gates, young directors needed to find new visions, while at the same time realising that the rules were now being re-written, the role of the theatre was changing, and an audience was growing up that not only had access to writings, films,music, paintings, videos from the “West”, but whose  interest and ability in the use of new technology was to become paramount in their ives. Now knowledge was being both learned and purveyed in new ways, and the theatre needed both to catch up and to lead. The conflict was too much for Zholdak, hence his single-minded pursuance of a vision of theatre for a 21t century Russian/Ukrainian audience.

       In Zholdak’s own writings we can see this dilemma : the director-figure who wants total control of his performers, and  yet at the same time realising the need to develop both new ways of accessing audiences and new ways of utilising those many old theatre buildings which must now be in a state of collapse across the whole of the former Soviet Union.

          In writing about Zholdak from the perspective of the UK, where I live and teach, one is aware of stepping into a whirlpool of opinion as to where the post-communist theatre in the countries of the former eastern europe is going. Has the collapse of the Soviet Empire left the theatre makers as guardians of a once proud tradition, complete with bureaucratic structures on the one hand, struggling to maintain the temples but being thrown out into the temple precincts? Or is there now a new freedom to experiment and develop ideas hidden for years? Is it that the role of the theatre in those countries now has to approach the apparent commercialisation of the western countries, or is it to be preserved as the upholder of the values of truth and humanity. The reality is somewhat different. New technology has so transformed the way  in which we live our lives that, in my country at least, the theatre is losing its young audiences, well-established city theatres are either closing or are in trouble. Even the revered Hampstead Theatre in London is now on its financial knees. Young people are deserting the theatre everywhere for the world of alternative venues and clubs. In Europe young directors are experimenting with both approaches to old material (Calixto Beito in Spain and the UK) or are finding a new freedom in creating theatre material that is not dependent on the old relationship between writer and director (Silviu Purcarate in Romania) . Into this whirlpool steps Andrey Zholdak with his extravagances, his audacity, and his energy.

         Under the conditions  in the Ukraine it is nothing short of a miracle that Zholdak can produce the work he does. Of course not all of it is coherent, and it is possibly too linked to the texts sometimes for its own comfort. Of course it is demanding on its performers and its management. Of course it seems to continue the tradition of the Russian director-priest. But it is slowly overhauling that tradition, showing that theatre can above all, for a visual generation, be a visual delight. Above all it is reclaiming for the theatre some of the  thrill of three-dimensional painting, and it is constantly surprising its audiences by the variety of events it creates.  At least the audiences in Kharkov can see what they have got. Let us hope that the rest of Europe will have chance to see it sooner rather than later. Thank the lord for the crazy Ukrainian...

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References

Anatoli Smeliansky, The Russian Theatre After Stalin (CUP, 1999)

Notes by Andrey Zholdak, Experimental Theatre Showcase, Kharkov, 2003

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