British Connection

Russian and British theater have enjoyed a rich, if curious, symbiosis for some time. After all, Anton Chekhov is almost regarded as a native English soul on the British Isles, and what playwright could possibly be more Russian in temperament than Shakespeare?

The renowned English theorist and director Gordon Craig was invited by Konstantin Stanislavsky to stage “Hamlet” at the Moscow Art Theater in 1912, and the Russian director Fyodor Kommisarzhevsky enjoyed a rich career in theater and film after fleeing to England after the Russian Revolution. Acclaimed contemporary English director Declan Donnellan has worked frequently in Russia — in Moscow and St. Petersburg — as well as in London, with Russian material. He mounted a much-ballyhooed revival of Nikolai Erdman’s “The Mandate” at the National Theater in 2004.

But it was on the cusp of the 1990s and 2000s that the most influential recent theatrical interaction has taken place between Russia and England. This was when London’s Royal Court Theater sent its international play development team to Moscow and gave a serious kick-start to a fledgling movement of unknown playwrights creating new texts for a new era of Russian theater. The Royal Court, supported by the British Council, not only led seminars on how to write plays, they funded festivals and, for several years, brought Russian writers to England to work, be translated and/or to be staged. To a large extent, the so-called “new drama” trend in Russian theater of the 2000s came about as a result of the Royal Court’s activities throughout Russia.

As an aside, the Russian government proved itself to be outrageously short-sighted, not to say ignorant, when it picked a fight with the British Council last year in seeming retaliation for British actions following the murder of ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko in 2006. The government forced the closure of British Council offices around the country, and the once-powerful Moscow chapter was reduced to a shadow of its former self. By insisting on making culture a victim of politics, the action merely succeeded in alienating one of Russia's best friends and partners in the world of art.

Be that as it may, I have more than a sneaking suspicion that British and Russian theater will always find ways to feed off one another. One enterprising Londoner is making certain that happens again sooner rather than later.

Yury Klavdiyev reading his
play "The Slow Sword" in Togliatti in 2006.
Noah Birksted-Breen is a director and translator, and the founder, along with Leila Gray, of the Sputnik Theatre Company. He has collaborated in the past with the Royal Court on its Russian drama program, translating several of the plays they developed. But his most comprehensive work has taken place at the Sputnik, where he has produced three productions of contemporary Russian drama since 2005. The most recent of these, Yury Klavdiyev’s “The Slow Sword,” was an ambitious production in 2008 that not only introduced a challenging new writer to British audiences, it was the play’s world premiere in any language. It is a rare occasion when a dramatic work begins its life in a language other than the original.

Birksted-Breen, who turns 32 on Feb. 19 and was educated at Oxford and the London School of Economics, has shown a catholic interest in Russian drama, taking care to look beyond the usual Moscow suspects. He opened the Sputnik Theatre in 2005 with a production of a play by the Yekaterinburg writer Oleg Bogayev called “Russian National Mail” and followed the next year with a production of Natalya Moshina’s “Techniques of Breathing in an Airlocked Space.”
Moshina is from Belarus and has collaborated with the prominent Free Theater in Minsk, a house that received a huge shot of publicity when the renowned playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard famously stated, “I wish that all my plays would be performed in a theater like this.” Last year’s production of Klavdiyev put the spotlight on a writer who was born and grew up in the tough working city of Togliatti on the Volga River in the south of Russia and who now lives and works in St. Petersburg.

But that apparently has only whet Birksted-Breen’s appetite. Now, while also working on a series of Russian plays for BBC4 radio, co-writing his own new play on Russian themes and opening his latest piece as a director — a work not related to Russia called “In Blood” at the Arcola Theatre — he has organized the Russia Today Festival, which is scheduled to take place at the Sputnik in London this summer. Planned for that event are staged readings of four new Russian plays. For good measure, the festival will act as an unofficial lead-in to the Other Russia season that will be hosted in September by the Royal Shakespeare Company.

The Russia Today Festival is tentatively scheduled to take place July 13 to 17 at the Soho Theatre. Two of the plays to be presented have already been announced — “Mothers” by Alexander Zuyev and “Dreams” by Natalya Kolyada. Zuyev, whose play represents that rare example of a dramatist dealing with the social fallout of the war in Chechnya, is another in an increasingly long line of writers to emerge from the playwriting school of Nikolai Kolyada (no relation to Natalya Kolyada) in Yekaterinburg. Natalya Kolyada is a longtime member of the Free Theater in Minsk. After the play readings have concluded, the Russia Today Festival will host all the authors in London for discussions with directors, writers, actors and anyone else interested in contemporary drama.

Even before the festival gets underway, Birksted-Breen has plans to take his translation of “Dreams” to Oslo for the Global Forum on Freedom of Expression during the first week in June.

Anyone following the developments of Russian drama would do well to follow what Birksted-Breen is up to. He is on a mission to ensure that Russian drama will once again have its day in British theater.