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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sturua Reaches Pinnacle of Theater




Whatever I say about Robert Sturua's production of "Hamlet" at the Satirikon Theater, it will be too little.


This is an immense production. It has been said that "War and Peace" is not a novel, it is life. I am tempted to apply that anti-definition to the swirling, pulsing, breathtaking act of creation that Sturua has accomplished with Shakespeare's most famous play. And yet, to suggest that Sturua's "Hamlet" is life and not theater would miss the whole point.


This is theater at its most exhilarating, most inventive, most concentrated and f no small thing f most entertaining.


What deceives f what makes this grand, inexorable march to tragedy so lifelike f is the extraordinary, almost incomprehensible meticulousness with which Sturua approached both the means of theater and the nature of life. This enormous show develops slowly and intently. It is the story of great and terrible passions in which Sturua takes the time to hear the ominous creaking of shoes and the alarming clatter of a goblet twirling madly on the floor.


Sturua transformed every gesture, expression and silence into the most important thing happening at the moment it happens. It seems as if we hear and understand every word that every actor utters and, moreover, as if the director and his cast know everything standing behind each of those words. I do not mean only Sturua's painstaking collation of six different Russian translations in order to strike as closely as possible at the heart of the original. I have in mind his uncanny ability to reveal the simple meanings of complex speeches through theatrical devices.


"Hamlet" is one of the few plays ever written with greatness pervading every pause. Its drama is absolute. And it is on the level of absolutes that Sturua f one of the world's great directors and, since 1980, the artistic director of the renowned Rustaveli Theater of Tbilisi, Georgia f approached the play. He claims in the program that he wanted to stage a tragifarce but, if that's true, he failed. He aimed too high for that. This is a production of cosmic proportions honed down to the tiniest detail.


It is a cliche that even the smallest role must be conceived as a lead. But watch Grigory Siyatvinda's two minutes as the Norwegian prince Fortinbras in the finale. He arrives to find the bodies of the entire royal house of Denmark strewn upon the floor and is as sickened by that sight as he is gratified to assume the empty throne. In the push and pull between those sentiments, an entire drama f with a beginning, middle and end f is enacted. Konstantin Raikin's Hamlet, rather older than the usual, stubbornly resists definition. He is wily, intelligent, uncomprehending, impulsive, unsure of himself and convinced of his mission to avenge his father's murder. His is a Hamlet of experience and knowledge.


Under Sturua's direction, which savors deeply the expressiveness of Raikin's face, the textures of his voice (his howling like a forlorn dog over Ophelia's grave), and his prodigious physical capabilities, Raikin shatters all the stereotypes of this character. He is an ever-changing, elemental force who, by his fascinating ambiguity, draws us along after him in his battle with enemies, real and imagined.


As both Claudius and the Ghost of Hamlet's father, Alexander Filippenko turns in a performance of stunning range and power. I have never seen a "Hamlet" in which Claudius assumed such prominence. He is, by rights, Hamlet's partner, as opponents always are. On occasion, like exhausted combatants who have fought to a draw, the two embrace and smile at the audience. It is their acknowledgement that in the scheme of history they are forever linked. And yet, they will fight to the death.


Filippenko, whimsical as the Ghost and brutal beneath the cover of geniality as Claudius, is the production's driving force. Hamlet is our focus, but he is ever one step behind in the games of psychology and power concocted and foisted upon him by the former and present king.


As predicted, I have said little about this exhilarating production.


What about Natalia Vdovina's Ophelia, trembling as if in a fever that will burst her before she drowns herself out of remorse over her father's death and Hamlet's cruelty? Or Oleg Khanov's Polonius, jovially personable and utterly corrupted by proximity to power? Lika Nifontova's dark, brooding Gertrude? Gia Kancheli's brilliant music f usually understated wisps of moods, but occasionally bursting into thundering expressions of turmoil? Georgy Meskhishvili's majestically empty, rough-textured set with its dim cloud of lightbulbs hanging above it?


One might write a dissertation about Sturua's directorial prowess. The image of a sword flying in a sheet of fire from an exploding spotlight packs all the terror and mystery of an angry message from God. The crude sexuality of all the main characters except Ophelia links them inextricably with the earth.


My own failure to scratch the surface of Robert Sturua's "Hamlet" is my reader's gain. When you go to see this show, as you must, all the discoveries that great art offers will be yours to make alone.


"Hamlet" plays at 7 p.m. Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Oct. 23 and 24 at the Satirikon Theater, 8 Sheremetyevskaya Ulitsa. Tel. 289-7844. Running time: 3 hours, 35 mins.