Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Petersburg Gets Gritty Version of The Bard

ST. PETERSBURG -- "As everyone knows, Chekhov was a great English playwright, and therefore Shakespeare -- a great Russian playwright," says Declan Donnellan.

In his version of "The Winter's Tale," Donnellan, artistic director of England's Cheek by Jowl Theater, lives up to his words, bringing a cogent examination of emotion and powerlessness to the stage of the Maly Drama Theater in a production that has at last given St. Petersburg audiences a truly living Shakespeare.

"I noticed one terrible problem is that people think that Shakespeare was giving an opportunity to show feelings," says Donnellan. "He does not do anything like that. Feelings are not something that can be shown. [Shakespeare] puts people on the stage, cut off in their feelings, trying to discover what they actually feel."

In the Maly's "The Winter's Tale," Shakespeare and Donnellan do not point anything out, they simply make it possible for the audience to observe what is happening in the minds and hearts of the protagonists. The audience can make up their own minds as to whether to sympathize or not, and with whom.

And this is where we come nearer to an understanding of why Russian productions of "The Winter's Tale" -- and of other Shakespearean plays -- have been so inadequate.

"Russian -- Soviet -- theater nurtured an overbearingly respectful attitude toward Shakespeare and even in the best productions romanticized him out of measure," says the Maly's artistic director, Lev Dodin. "If you read the essays by Anikst -- one of Russia's foremost specialists on Shakespeare -- on 'The Winter's Tale,' you constantly come across the epithets 'fairy tale' or 'fabulous.'

"During Soviet times, 'The Winter's Tale' was considered a fairy tale, and Richard III was distorted to suit a communist interpretation, which only did injustice to Shakespeare. For Donnellan, Shakespeare is not a rare, royal guest, but an author with whom he was brought up all his life and whom he knows how to read: simply, to the letter, and seriously," Dodin said.

Donnellan's "The Winter's Tale" marks the culmination of an 11-year friendship between the Maly Drama Theater and Cheek by Jowl, and between their artistic directors, Donnellan and Dodin. This production, like others before it at the Maly done by Cheek by Jowl, was made possible by the support of the British Council and its former director in St. Petersburg, Michael Bird.

Donnellan's stagecraft draws on a wide range of motifs to create a production rooted as much in the present as in any other realm. Everything has been muddled and mixed up onstage, creating the impression that it bears no relation to time, space or social context.

Kings and their courtiers are dressed as Soviet naval officers, while the peasants wear Anglo-Soviet disco gear. The old shepherd and his son, in a scene where they approach Leontes, are like a couple of Soviet peasants in town to buy groceries; they speak with strong Belarussian accents.

"A very Russian production," was how several English members of the audience reacted.

"A very English production," said Dodin. "Which may be its only weakness."

"The Winter's Tale," directed by Declan Donnellan, is next showing Dec. 4-5 at the Maly Drama Theater in St. Petersburg .