Five years ago, playwright and director Nicola McCartney was about to travel to
Russia, where over the previous seven years she had established a series of new
playwriting initiatives in a country still best known for its weighty theatrical
legacy rather than contemporary theatre. Before she left, David MacLennan, the
now late founder of A Play, Pie and A Pint, suggested to McCartney that she
should see if there was any scope in looking at writers to take part in
MacLennan's pioneering series of lunchtime plays at Oran Mor in Glasgow.
In association with the National Theatre of Scotland, PPP had previously hosted
seasons of plays from China, the middle east and Latin America, and McCartney
had already worked with a generation of writers who styled themselves as part of
the Novii Drama or New Drama wave of artists who broke the boundaries of
old-school social realism as well as political taboos.
The eventual result of this is a season curated by McCartney of three plays from Russia and Ukraine
which takes place at Oran Mor as part of the NTS' Belong season of work. Take
the Rubbish Out, Sasha, by Ukranian writer Natalia Voruzhbyt, seen in a
translation by Sasha Dugdale and directed by McCartney, will open the season at
Oran Mor in two weeks time. This will be followed by two plays by Russian
writers, The War Hasn't Started Yet by Mikhail Durnenkov, and Yuri Klavdiev's
play, Thoughts Spoken Aloud From Above. With both receiving literal translations
by Alexandra Smith, the first will be adapted and directed by Davey Anderson,
with Klavdiev's play adapted by Peter Arnott.
“I'd worked with all threewriter before,” says McCartney, “The first time I came to Russia in 2003 doing
Class Act Russia with the Traverse, Mikhail and Yuri were emerging playwrights
shadowing me, and since then have become hip, young experimental writers really
interested in social theatre.”
Both already have international track records, with plays having been produced at the Royal Shakespeare Company and
other places, with one work by Klavdiev, The Slow Sword, currently regarded as
the most dangerous Russian play ever written.
“I met Natalia three years ago,” says McCartney. “Her work is very popular in Russia, and when I was there,
whenever she walked into a room other playwrights would burst into
The reasons these plays have taken so long to reach the stage
are many, not least related to the ongoing Ukranian-Russian conflict which
kick-started into dangerous life in 2014.
“There have been difficulties,” McCartney says. “Once we decided on the writers we wanted to work with, we
brought them over here about eighteen months ago, mainly to get a feel of how A
Play, Pie and A Pint works in terms of staging and how big a cast they could
have, how big the stage is, all that stuff. There have been times where we've
been finding it quite hard to pay people because of banking restrictions that
have been imposed, and then one of our Russian writers couldn't get a visa, so
that made life quite difficult as well.”
With a broad brief to write about about the state of their country now in a season enabled in part by
funding from the University of Edinburgh, where McCartney leads the Masters
programme in playwriting, each writer took a very different approach.
As McCartney explains, Vorozhbyt’s play looks at gender power in the aftermath of a
Russian colonel's death.
“It reflects a very particular set of gender politics that exists in Ukraine,” she says, “where a lot of men were employed in
the public sector, and their earning power dropped, so their wives earn a lot
more. Many of the men feel emasculated and become alcoholics, sand the women are
very much under pressure as the sole earners.
“The play is set on the ninth day of Remembrance, which in the Russian Orthodox church means that the
spirit doesn't leave the body until then.”
Out of this comes the dead colonel's determination to prove his manhood and mobilise the dead.
“It's quite comedic,” says McCartney, “and moves from extreme naturalism to magic
Durnenkov's play is a more absurdist piece made up of eight
seemingly disconnected scenes involving assorted characters. Out of this,
according to McCartney, “it really gives you a window on what it's like to be a
Russian living in Russia today. What I think he's doing is foregrounding the
absurdity of a situation where everything is propaganda. It's kind of like
Bulgakov, in that its extrapolating things from everyday reality to say
something about a day to day universe.”
Finally, Klavdiev's play takes things to even further extremes, as a man seeks sanctuary in the woods, where he
eats some magic mushrooms. The hallucinations that follow see the man role-play
a multitude of contemporary Russian characters, including a serious depiction of
a lesbian in a way previously unthinkable in Russian drama.
“It's quite bizarre,” McCartney says of the play, “and reflects what a lot of Russians who
live in the city do, by getting away from having to fit into Russian society.
Usually homosexuality is only ever treated comedically, so this is quite an
explosive play in a Russian context.”
If all this sounds serious, McCartney points to the experience of the Moscow-based Theatre Doc to illustrate
just how big the stakes are for Russian and Ukranian drama.
“They deliberately stood up for free speech,” she says of the basement-based home of
radical Russian theatre built by its writers, “and did a performance of the
transcripts from the Pussy Riot trial. After that they were closed down, but
instead of saying we don't like you, they sent the fire department in to say a
fire door was in the wrong place.”
After Theatre Doc made structural changes under the fire department's guidance, the City's property department
issued a press release stating the theatre had violated renovation rules
concerning structural changes.
“There's something about theatre that means so much in Russia and the Ukraine,” McCartney says. “Here we had a rush on
that sort of idea during the referendum, but most of the time theatre's about
getting bums on seats. In Russia and Ukraine it's a life or death thing. Having
witnessed that world over the last twelve years, I hope our audiences can get an
insight into a place where if you disagree with something you can't do anything
but write, and which has always been the Russian way.”
A Play, A Pie and A Pint: International Plays from Ukraine and Russia; Take the Rubbish Out, Sasha,
Oran Mor, Glasgow, March 23-28, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, March 31-April 4;
The War Hasn't Started Yet, Oran Mor, Glasgow, May 4-9; Thoughts Spoken Aloud
From Above, Oran Mor, Glasgow, May
The Herald, February 6th 2015