PRESENCETaganka Theatre, Moscow
Director: Semyon Alexandrovsky
Movement Artists: Tatiana Gordeeva
Set designer: Olga Nikitina
Multimedia Director: Natalia Naumova
In 1964, the most famous Soviet theatre of protest the Taganka Theatre opened with Yury Lyubimov’s production The Good Person of Szechwan. The production was performed in the optimistic 60-s, in the confused 70-s, in the angry 80-s, and in the turbulent 90-s. It continued to be on even after Lyubimov resigned with scandal from his own theatre. The musical parable by Brecht and Lyubimov continues to collect a full house even after the death of the director and the theatre closure for the first total refurbishment. Analyzing this phenomenon, one of the main Russian media experimentalists Semyon Alexandrovsky suggested the Taganka young actors deconstructing the video episode (taking it to pieces and rehearsing it in all possible combinations ) of a scene from The Good Person starring the famous Zinaida Slavina and Vladimir Vysotsky. This process is observed by the audience sitting in headphones: Does this voice belong to Vladimir Vysotsky? Are these the memories of older actors? The episode is repeated over and over again, and in the subtle differences one may guess the essence of theatrical art which cannot be fixed. The play was staged specially for the Taganka Theatre last year. Now that the Taganka is closed for the refurbishment, Presence is performed at another venue but while watching it is important to keep in mind the context of the creation of the production.
When in 2013 I was watching "The Good Person of Szechwan" at the Taganka Theatre, I had a feeling there were two stories developing simultaneously in the production that had already become a legend. One was the story written by Brecht, and the other was a dialogue of the current performers with the actors who originally performed in it. The cast included actors of several generations, among them those who have been performing it from the time it was staged fifty years ago. At some point, I felt an invisible presence of the actors who were not with us any longer, and it seemed that the young actors, those who came to replace the older generation, were in dialogue with them. I felt I wanted to stop the time and detect their presence, and, most importantly, to make this dialogue visible.
The Taganka Theatre has always been a theatre of collective experiences, the theatre that united people in the audience. But today it seemed to me more important to separate the people and to make everyone experience on hisher own. Contrary to Lyubimov’s production where the performance area was moved to the auditorium, I decided to bring the audience as close to the stage as possible and to let them hear the story developing on the stage as if they were overhearing it.
"Presence" by Semyon Alexandrovsky is an attempt at a dialogue with the Taganka Theatre’s past…"The Good Person of Szechwan" is the production which fifty years ago marked the beginning of the Taganka Theatre history. The production was renewed several times, including a renewal in 1999 dedicated to the Taganka’s 35th anniversary. The cast was also renewed a few times. The first cast included Vladimir Vysotsky and Zinaida Slavina. Years later their parts were “inherited” by actors of a younger generation. As said in a review dating back to 1999, playing the parts once performed by the legendary Vysotsky and Slavina, was "like walking a tightrope or stepping through a minefield in search of your own identity". This comparison was taken by the director of “Presence” as a key when selecting the phrases belonging to different generations of actors. The actors took a very careful approach to the production of 1964, and would pass it on to the new cast as if it was the regimental colors, all the time looking back at their famous predecessors.
The actors of the new cast ……have never seen the famous performers alive, only on video. They memorized the lines from the screen, trying to imitate not only the words but every intonation and every gesture, forbidding themselves even a tiny step away from the canonical text. In fact, the process of simulation of every line and every gesture is used by the director and actors as a series of exercises.
The young actors take up only one scene, i.e. the dialogue between the pilot and Shen Te. The video with Vysotsky and Slavina is played many times until the new performers get to do it in a synchronized way. By then the audience also know the lines by heart and could probably repeat the scene exactly as it was staged by Yury Lyubimov. Semyon Alexandrovsky very carefully copies the scene and decomposes it into elements: first, the actresses practice to sound in unison with the video, then they try to move along with it and, finally, they replace Slavina in the scene with Vysotsky.
We see the past intervening with the present, the reality gets mixed with the Taganka history, and at the same time the game of scales is going on ...... The game includes an ongoing internal dialogue, a restrained piety and a sense of the responsibility - if not the mission - entrusted by the Taganka Theatre. At the same time, there is a total dependence on the legendary production and on Yuri Lyubimov’s “personality cult” that obliges to be up to the mark.