Much talked about in the recent months because of its numerous premieres, the Theatre na Yugo-Zapade has long been known as one of Moscow's spirited companies. The latest productions confirm this reputation. On the small, black stage the direction by company founded and leader Valery Belyakovich (also set designer, light designer and music director for all productions) is imaginative and vigorously expressive. Since Belyakovich is more concerned about the strength of the general impression than about detail, some actor's works may not be finished throughougly. But the acting is always compellingly, vibrant and committed.
On seven plays opened over the last year, two are not played anywhere else in Moscow – Shchee and Dostoyevsky-trip by Vladimir Sorokin, recognized as a major contemporary Russian writer, but condemned by some critics as too naturalistic, shocking and indecent.
Named after the popular Russian cabbage soup, Shchee is set in a fantastic prison camp of the future, whose inmates are Russian cooks – jailed by the environmentalist authorities for cooking non-vegetarian dishes. At times hilarious, though comprehensible only to those who have a notion of the peculiar ways of Russian criminal world, this performance is totally unrestrained and rather disorderly, in true Russian fashion.
Dostoyevsky-trip is compact, crisp and poignantly frank and looks rather like a Western play. Combining word with the movement and resourcefully playing up the only element of the set, seven metallic containers (one for each of the main characters) Belyakovich gives Sorokin's drama a spectacular theatrical form. The characters are drug addicts, who take drugs named after different writers and acting correspondingly. What they say about the impact of Tolstoy, Faulkner and other famous authors often makes the audience laugh. The viewers can see with their own eyes the effect of getting high on Dostoyevsky.
Having taken a dose of Dostoyevsky, the addicts are incarnated into characters of his novel The idiot, showing their heartbreaking passions in the episode of Nastasya Philippovna's party. Dostoyevsky's femme fatale is bewitchingly graceful, bold and dangerous performed by Karina Dymont, whose roles at this theatre include Juliet in Romeo and Juliet and Ophelia in Hamlet. By and by the addict's true self starts to reappear through the novel's images. But still possessed by Dostoyevsky, they feel their souls and abilities growing to a global scale. Ivolgin's sister Varya (played by Galina Galkina with memorable shades of character acting) exaltedly dreams of bringing together all loving sisters of the world. Rogozhin, confidently played by Sergey Neudachin, ardently proclaims his readiness to sexually satisfy all women.
From these radiant heights Dostoevsky brings Sorokin's characters to the darkest depths of the human soul. Already quite sober, they speak of the most secret, painful and shameful experiences of their childhood. Full of shocking detail, these confessions are penetratingly sincere. Concluding them is a frightful story from Lebedev, compellingly rendered by Mikhail Dokin. Its macabre humour and powerful passion bring the performance to a sort of catharsis – followed by the finale, whose gloomy solemnity has a slight touch of irony.
Two other openings are Chekhov's The Seagull and Three Sisters. Already staged innumerable times, with Belyakovich they look unexpectedly fresh and exciting. Throwing off concrete everyday details, he lets the viewer look right into inner essence, which gave Chekhov a reputation as forefather of the theatre of the absurd.
In Belyakovich's subtle, tender and romantic version of The Seagull, the first act is delightfully light-hearted and gracefully theatrical. Operating melodies alternate with modern rhythmic tunes and characters dance out form the darkness in a waltz, tango or cha-cha. Dymont's Nina, in a fanciful white dress, beguilingly glides about the stage like a lovely bird. It is this frail and spirited girl, her dream to become an actress, Treplev's passionate tenderness towards her and her own romantic love for Trigorin, that is the main charm of the play. The second act, much more subdued, gradually becomes pretty dismal, seemingly under the burden of Treplev's frustrated hopes and Nina's grief and hardships.
Three Sisters encloses heartfealt emotion into the stern and severe outward framework. Rhythmic pounding, as it from distant artillery volleys, is repeatedly heard. The officers visiting the Prozorovs' house are dressed in modern field uniforms and the sisters' costumes also have some modern details. The walls of the house are made of metallic gratings and the only sign of a normal human habitation is a grand piano.
The characters recite their monologues while sitting at the piano as if playing, and piano melodies wonderfully express their moods. The different melodies almost never come together, and if they do, not in harmony, but discord. Even Vershinin and Masha, who love each other, simultaneously speak about their different woes, both not listening and unaware of not being heard. After Tuzenbach is killed and the military leaves the town, the sisters roll the piano off the stage. No more love, no more dreams and hopes – just the necessary to live. However, with the invigorating spirit of the Theatre na Yugo-Zapade even such and ending is not too depressing.
Belyakovich, the man who has been cultivating this spirit for 23 years, is also an excellent actor. So is his brother Sergei, a company member since the beginning. Their duet can be seen in Brothers, based on the popular play Imigrants by Slavomir Mrozhek.