Another one of my idiosyncratic obsessions is Russia. My attention and interest are simply drawn there. The more I learn of it, the more I want to know and uncover. To the “Western” world it is still very much a closed book and will probably remain largely so. For how can a country as vast – in land mass, people and memories – that could just as well be classified as a continent ever be fully known? The literature, the language and its script, the natural beauty, expanse, mystery, food and drink, not to mention the history, all pull me further into my own fascination. Last Saturday I finally organised myself into going. I booked my flights and in September I land in St Petersburg.
Last week has been a Russe adventure itself that began with the paperwork required to procure a Russian visa – needed for most foreigners to enter the behemoth. Whilst getting all the requisite documents in order is slightly more hassle than, say, an Indian visa, the calm, cool interior of the Russian Visa office is worth going to just to experience a slice of efficiency in the UK. (Although, I have been impressed by how smoothly the Olympics have been run. Compared to expectation.) Only a few more days to wait until I am the proud owner of one single entry tourist visa into the ex-USSR.
On Wednesday 1st August the Central School of Speech and Drama – Laurence Olivier, Kirsten Scott Thomas and Martin Freeman just a few of its notable alumni – laid on an evening of Chekhov and Russian chow. Greeted with the refreshing smell of dill, Russian Revels’ Katrina and Karina created a corner of rural Russia by turning one of the drama school’s ante-rooms into a dasha (cottage) with bunches of flowers, traditionally patterned tablecloths, baskets of fresh radishes, spring onions and pickles, horseradish and beetroot dips and vodka based elderflower cocktails. Particularly lovely were the apple candleholders and a hollowed out rye bread that became serving dishes.
Each of us was given a selection of zakuski (nibbles) that included a pea/mint/cheese concoction nestled in lettuce, a spinach and egg pie and a sauerkraut filo pastry parcel. Rye bread and all the legume trimmings were ours for the plundering. Light. Fresh. Summery. O-cheen fkoos-ni! Katrina and Karina cook with love and care. Their effort is outstanding.
Next, into the auditorium for Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters. The decadence and ennui that comes with nineteenth century landed gentry existence is explored through the lives of three sisters Olga, Irina and Masha. They long for the allure of Moscow’s city life, but have to make do with the unwanted admirations of the soldiers who call at their house, unhappy marriages and their brother’s harridan of a wife. What starts off as bouncy and ebullient turns bleak and tortured and violent – the only backdrop on which to explore that passion the Ruskis do so well.
Director Ben Naylor and designers Wong Yatkwan, Edmund Mckay and Luke Pajak have produced a flow and aesthetic that might easily be mistaken for anything London’s leading theatres offer. There were some exceptional gems among the cast – Cameron Hale as Masha’s buffoon husband and Paul Westbrook as the Byronic soldier Solyony – but there lacked the gel that is required to capture the bickering, tensions and yearnings of such a household. And while the three sisters – Ruth McMeel, Cassandra Gonzales and Erato Passi (the most interesting of the trio) – looked the parts, there was a tad too much Jane Austen channelled for the setting.
As is the case in any work performed in a second tongue, one wonders how well we are capable – as foreigners – to capture the essence and spirit of both the playwright and the characters he has imagined. Watching the Swedish/Danish film The Inheritance a few days earlier, I was surprised at how different Shakespeare sounded and felt when recited in Swedish. And the case must be the same as natives watch their own Chekhov in the Bard’s language.
Three Sisters is just as many hours long: one could easily have shortened the production by omitting the somewhat irrelevant and irritating ramblings of actor Svetlovidov – father to the three – from the play’s beginning.
Those unfamiliar with Chekhov but daunted by working through an entire play would do extremely well to start with any collection of his short stories – A Russian Affair being especially wonderful. Then, if you crave more of the same, move onto Ivan Turgenev’s First Love.
My week of rushing around didn’t just include theatre. For the Russians also happen to be deft athletes. In 2014 the winter Olympics will be held in Sochi, on the country’s Black Sea coast. To rev up for the occasion a formidable set of tents – the Sochi.Park – takes up the space beside the Albert Memorial. Sochi 2014 has managed to do what London 2012 didn’t and that is attractively brand the event design. But there may have been some misalignment between what I thought the exhibition would be and what it actually was.
The Park – and its summer counterpart, the Russia.Park – is really just a very elaborate promotion stand for the event and its sponsors: Rosneft, Sberbank and Russian Railways (form your own opinions on that).
But as trade stands go, it isn’t bad. The 4D theatre showed a brief simulation of ski jumping, bobsleighing and other high-octane feats to strobe lights, smoke and flying snowballs. In the neighbouring tent an artificial ice rink has been set up for a decent enough “ice show” performed by Russian skaters. Quite bizarre to sit in a stifling marquee and watch figure skating.
Pitched on the other side of Ken Gardens, the Russia.Park is made of fake grass with a food stall selling traditional Russian fare (stew, dumplings and sweets), a stage, sports activities for kids and plenty of beanbags on which to sit and watch the Olympics.
Theatre, dance and music events are a daily occurrence here and next Saturday from 5-10pm the Red Rocks festival will show off some Russian bands – Mumiy Troll and Vopli Vidopliassova are available on Spotify.
Russian Lady Macbeth was the last installment of the week’s adventure. Fast becoming a favourite of mine, Viktor Sobchak’s Theatre Collection eschews extravagant production and design and let’s the performers, the text and the characters bring a story to life. Sobchak does not try and appease us with comedy and cheerfulness, preferring the older, darker works. Nikolai Leskov – a contemporary of Chekhov and Tolstoy – gives us Katherina: a rich woman in an unhappy and sexless marriage who falls in love and lust with servant Sergei and sets into motion a slew of murders in order to keep their status and entanglement safe.
Gripping, engaging and bloody, Russian Lady Macbeth is a tremendous story. Heidi Mumford as the lead murderess Katherina was a perfect physical match and Alan Marni as her lover gave the strongest and most passionate performance of the evening. Sami Tesfay and Marco Rossi made a superb double act as the alcoholic footmen Nicolai and Ivan. Theatre Collection only reinforces my preference for small and fringe theatre over the safer West End options.
Russian Revels are hosting a sublime Soviet Chic evening at the Goethe Institute on 16th August. Pay £38 for all you can eat and drink and experience some Slavic hospitality without the hassle of a visa. Still hungry? Head up Primrose Hill to one of London’s most undiscovered and beautiful gems: Troyka. Food and value are exceptional as is its carmine interior. A glass of chilled vodka, a few side dishes and an outside table on a sunny day is as close to heaven as you’re likely to get whilst alive. Extremely compatible with hangovers, and a great way to extend one’s Russian week in London.