You must have heard of Lev Dodin. The acclaimed Russian theatre director, and the Maly Drama Theatre of St Petersburg which he heads, have been performing in Russia and touring the world for 3 and a half decades already. Recipient of numerous awards and high critical acclaim the theatre arguably has no peer in interpreting Chekhov. Following the success of their Uncle Vanya in London last year, they return to the big smoke again with the next Chekhov’s play, Three Sisters, which will be on stage 19 – 29 June. Russian Art and Culture were lucky to catch Lev Dodin in between the rehearsals and talk to him about his work and the importance of theatre in the contemporary world.
MM: Why have you chosen theatre, and not, for example, cinema?
LD: This is a tricky question. I definitely favour theatre, but at the same time I very much enjoy cinema and am learning a lot from it. Even now I am reading Bergman’s book. However, my interest in cinema is very much connected to thinking how I can use some of its techniques on the stage. What I like about theatre is that it is about the present moment. The viewers and the actors meet at the certain place and the certain time and share some common experience. They all are present in this particular moment of time. It makes each performance unique. Every night viewers witness something that cannot be repeated, which will be slightly different with each new performance. Creating and directing such moments of shared experience is what I value the most. I had a number of offers in cinema industry, but I believe that everyone should stick to their own business and do what they can do the best. Moreover, cinema might be really exhausting – you need to run around with a camera, wait to catch the best lighting, wait for sunset, wait for sunrise… I favour continuous work with the artists and uninterrupted eight-hour long rehearsals. For me it is much more fascinating.
Being a director of the major theatre, you must have a lot of administrative duties. How do you find the balance between your artistic leadership and administration?
Theatre is an artistic body and it should be headed by an artist, or at least someone who thinks of themselves as an artist. And any theatre needs consistent management. I the two roles you mentioned are closely connected. All the administrative issues appear due to the artistic process and they should be resolved bearing in mind the artistic process. I am responsible for the overall strategy, but I am not involved in addressing each individual administrative question. I have wonderful assistants and the executive director, whom I fully trust. I outline them my artistic goal and then they explain me how these goals can be achieved financially. If they are not achievable than we again work together to find the ways to either amend artistic process or find new financial and administrative solutions.
How does theatre world in St Petersburg differ from Moscow?
This question is impossible to answer objectively. It is as if ask a Muscovite if she prefers Moscow or Saint Petersburg. Or think about Nemirovich-Danchenko. When Meyerhold’s theatre was closed during Stalin period, he was asked what he thought about it. Nemirovich-Danchenko answered: to ask me about Meyerhold is like to ask Nicholai II about the October Revolution… And I myself, being a native of St Petersburg, can hardly be objective when comparing two cities.
But jokes aside I think that Moscow theatre world, as Moscow life in general, is more intense, energetic and eventful. St Petersburg on the contrary is more focused and self-centred. It might have fewer events, but these events are more meaningful. As every capital Moscow is very hectic, while St Petersbur is composed and thoughtful. As Dostoevsky described it the social issues are felt everywhere in St Petersburg. To sum up: Moscow life is faster, but St Petersburg life is better.
Since we started comparing two cities, how would you comment on the difference between Moscow and London theatre systems? Do you support repertory theatre as it exists in Russia?
Repertory theatre is a very important achievement. Stanislavsky introduced not only the world-famous techniques for performing, but also the system how the whole theatre should function. It is indeed a significant cultural invention. Repertory gives an opportunity for theatre to develop as an artistic body. It allows actors evolve as they are performing the same roles during a long period of time. It lets ideas which started to emerge in one play to fully grow and blossom in the next one. It prompts the relations among the director and actors to transform and mature. Unlike it a non-repertory theatre is a disposable model. It does not mean that it is bad, though. For example, disposable plates are a great thing to use. But 8 weeks, this is how much a play is performed in London is not enough. It is unbelievably difficult to create a masterpiece in such a limited period of time. But theatre is a miracle. You can rehearse for 10 years without any success or you can develop a brilliant play in 10 days. So, if a miracle happens and the masterpiece is created in 8 weeks than the fact that it has such a short life span is absolutely unfair. The actors lose their chance for greater artistic. Moreover, theatre loses its sole. It exists as a collective attempt of the artists and director and it is almost impossible to create this soul in 8 weeks especially for the people who just met each other. Returning to non-repertory theatre is a step backwards. The calls to move towards non-repertory theatre, to adopt the Western model, are becoming very frequent in Russia. However, I think they are quote controversial. I am sure that many of the Western theatre directors would be happy to work in the repertory theatre and to develop long-term ideas with actors, colleagues and like-minded people around them.
Why did you decide to bring Three Sisters to London this time?
We have a long history of interpreting Chekhov. We staged all of his plays, except of Ivanov, and some of them even more than once. Checkhov is very important for the theatre and also my favourite playwriter. We performed Uncle Vanya in London twice and it was received very well here. I think it is only logical to bring the next Chekhov’s play to London audience and to continue developing our common understanding of what Chekhov means today. For me he is the most contemporary playwright. No one else can address today’s urgent issues as clearly as Chekhov does. If we find the common language with London audience, than I hope there will be an opportunity to continue presenting our interpretation of other Chekhov’s plays to British public.
Who are your favourite authors other than Chekhov and which plays or novels would you like to stage?
One of my favourites is Dostoyevsky. We staged him already and even performed Demons in the Barbican, London. It is not an easy one as it lasts 8 hours. However, I was very proud of British audience and the way they received it. I did not work with Shakespeare for a while, but recently came back to it and we staged Hamlet. It is a very contemporary adaptation and it will be very interesting to present it to the western audience. And if we are talking about the plays and authors, which I have not yet dealt with, but which I would like to stage, then it is definitely ancient tragedy. It does not mean, however, that I will time to do it soon, but it is something that interests me today.
You toured all over the world and went to all the continents…
Except of Antarctica!
Exactly! Which of the tours or places were the most memorable for you?
Now that we are getting ready to go to London, I think about our previous experience performing here and meeting the British audience. Our visits to Britain were very important to meBritain was one of the first places where we toured – we went that time to Glasgow and London and even received the prestigious Olivier award. It was quite a while ago but travelling and performing in the UK has since been an important experience for me. But to be honest, the main impression from our touring to different countries was that all people are much closer to each other and understand each other much better than we often tend to think. It is amazing to see how different the world is, but how similar we all are.
Do you think Russian mentality is different from the Europeans? Does such thing as ‘misterious Russian soul’ exist?
I think it is a total myth created by those who cannot explain some patterns of behaviour or cultural contradictions. Rather than trying to resolve them it is always easier to account them to something mysterious and inexplicable. I think that Russian soul is not different from any other soul – be it French, British or Japanese. Sometimes people can react to things slightly differently. When the British laugh loudly, the Japanese might only slightly smile. But it is only the external manifestation. We all laugh and cry at the same moments. And I think it is the major discovery I made. Russia is a very European culture. It is full of European culture and sometimes I even think that we understand and love it better than the Europeans do – think for example about popularity of some of the English and French authors, who are hardly as popular back in their countries. I think all people are all united by the same morals. And it is very scary to see how today we all are striving to be different. Theatre, better than anything else is showing our unity. We are the Russian theatre, we perform the play by the Russian author in Russian, but it still creates exactly the same emotions and response all over the world. Our theatre and our international works are a mission to demonstrate people how much we have in common.
You have been to London a number of times. Do you have your favourite places here?
For me London started with Piccadilly Circus and Hammersmith, where we performed for the first time. These places are very dear to me. I like that London is very different, each area is unlike the others. Last time I was here more than 5 years ago, and I was impressed by London’s energy and its development. It is amazing how it can remain the centre of the global culture, but not become a museum. It is a very lively and active city and it makes it even more exciting to visit it and each time to experience new emptions..