by Simon Callow
Simon Callow's foreward to Maria Shevtsova's
Dodin and the Maly Drama Theatre: Process to Performance
In the summer of 1988, I was rehearsing the part of Faust in David Freeman’s version of Goethe’s play. One evening, shortly before we opened, I thought it would be useful to take the night off and see someone else’s work. The play I chose was Stars in the Morning Sky, performed by the Maly company at the Riverside Studios. I had heard rumours of their excellence, but I had read nothing about them; this was the first preview, before any notices had appeared.
It is scarcely possible for me to exaggerate the impact that evening had on me. It’s an interesting play, and the physical production was striking. What lifted it into another realm altogether, however, was the acting. Each performance was audacious, powerfully expressive, rhythmically exhilarating. One seemed to be taken through layer after layer to the heart of the characters, and beyond that, to their very essences. This group of riff-raff, tarts and nutcases was transfigured into a vision of the human condition as piercing as the greatest painting, the most searing music, could offer. But the achievement was a collective one, like the playing of a great orchestra. What was exceptional was the melos, the underlying sense of the whole. More extraordinary, even, than the individual performances or the interplay between the characters, was the corporate life manifested on the stage. The connectivity of the actors was almost tangible, an organic tissue which made them breathe as one and move with a profound awareness of everything that was going on within the group.
I was overwhelmed. I had never seen a group like it and never had a comparable experience in a theatre. Everyone in the theatre that night felt the same, unmistakably. There was a very specific reason that I was so particularly shaken by it, however. It was everything for which my training (at the Drama Centre in London) had been a preparation, namely, the ideal of the true ensemble, but which I had never seen. It had been a central tenet of our work as students that the highest form of theatrical endeavour was to belong to such a group, committed to each other for many years, in perpetual evolution, who would grow by working together closely over a long period of time, creating levels of confidence and courage which would enable them to take on the greatest challenges of the repertory with an unprecedented level of depth across the board: every player a star, one day carrying the play, the next day a spear. The actors would be in perpetual training, spurred on by voice and movement teachers; by exploratory workshop sessions requiring a degree of openness and commitment only available to people who have learned to trust each other and risk making fools of themselves without embarrassment, by directors who monitored the actors closely, noting their strengths and weaknesses, shaping the repertory and the distribution of roles according to a graph of personal development.
By the time I saw the Maly, I had come to believe that this was not so much an ideal as a myth. Even the great companies I had seen—the Moscow Art Theatre, the Berliner Ensemble, the Schaubühne—had either ossified or disbanded, and the noble British attempts at it in the 1960s, by Peter Hall at the RSC and Laurence Olivier at the National Theatre, had by the mid-1970s moved towards the model of the repertory theatre with a group of players hired for a season or two to perform specific plays. There were smaller groups like Mike Alfred’s Shared Experience and Declan Donnellan’s Cheek by Jowl whose actor and directors experimented together over some years with stimulating results, but the concept of the ensemble demands a scale of organisation which was simply not available to what were essentially touring outfits, woefully under-funded and overworked. It must be said, too, that the notion of an unending training is deeply inimical to most British actors who feel that three years at drama school is quite enough of a good thing, thank you very much. The vision began to fade.
Now here I was, suddenly, in the presence of the Holy Grail. My first reaction was one of humility, almost of shame. How shallow, obvious and meretricious an actor I felt myself to be in the face of what every single one of those actors was achieving. In a few days, our production of Faust would open. Rehearsing it, I had dimly thought that virtually every scene merited a month’s rehearsal, instead of the day we were able to give it. Serious and exploratory though Freeman’s work was, and dedicated and hard-working though we actors were, we were attempting to stage two plays which together amounted to seven hours of pulverisingly dense text. Quick decisions had to be made, linear logic identified, effective solutions found. We attempted to tell the story with clarity, to find a physical metaphor for the play, to create credible characters. On the whole we succeeded in all these things, and the lumbering Meisterwerk was brought to a public which was for the most part very appreciative. But (and here of course I speak only for myself) we could have done so much better. The work, complex and elusive though it often is, deserved so much better. I was conscious, as Faust, of getting through the role, using my skills to paper over the cracks. It was partly a matter of time, but that was not all. The company, most of whom had never worked together before, were committed and democratic, but came from diverse backgrounds, with different trainings, or no training at all, and despite group warm-ups and sessions of collective music-making, had no shared view of the work and were thus essentially executants rather than interpreters. The actors of the Maly had somehow fused themselves into a single body without having lost their individuality.
How had they done it? I had to find out. Whenever the Maly came to Britain, I went out of my way to see their work: The Cherry Orchard, light and swift, but so emotionally communicative that I never stopped weeping from beginning to end, even—especially—when it was at its funniest. The party scene in Act II was a miracle both of staging and acting: every character, every unnamed guest at the party was a universe unto him- or herself, as they wove across the stage, sweeping up the other characters, cutting through and across scenes, not disrupting but enhancing the movement of the play. This was not a text staged, but a world in which movement, language, character were all part of a stream of human life which passed before us, eddying, flowing, now babbling, now murmuring, sometimes torrential, sometimes placid. The Devils started momentarily with the entire ensemble singing Russian Orthodox chants, and proceeded with relentless casuistical energy to lay bare the whole malaise of the nineteenth-century Russian soul; Gaudeamus, a wild slapstick performed with reckless physical daring and sudden shafts of surreal pain; A Play With No Name, their version of the text generally known in English as Platonov, for me perhaps the greatest of their achievements, where the physical realisation of the play and its emotional cross-currents was of such audacity—most of the action was played in a deep pool of water; at regular intervals in the company, playing a variety of instruments, would strike up a classical piece or some mad jazz riff—that the stage seemed entirely liberated from its confines, though within all this highly projected life were scenes of the most scrupulous naturalism and exercises of skill (as when a drunken character dances on the table while the servants slowly and imperturbably remove the remains of the supper, including the table-cloth), breathtaking in their observed accuracy.
Curiously, though the design of each show is remarkable, and the staging itself is prodigiously brilliant, it is not of the director or the designer that one thinks while watching the show. One doesn’t even particularly think of the writer. It is the actors who hold you absolutely, not simply as performers, nor even as individuals, but as some kind of collective conduit for the life-force. A Maly production is contained within the actors’ bodies, brains, hearts and souls; it is the sum total of their work, their relationship with each other, their relationship to the world. The experience of the production, no matter how stylised the conception, is always deeply human. There is nothing out there, no objective artistic statement, simply the sum total of the artists’ contribution, both as people and as players. Dodin is clearly a visionary of the highest order, but in no sense are the actors merely enacting his masterplan: they are its living matter, shaping the production as much as shaped by it.