The Beatles in Moscow: at Last the 1960s Show
A new play based on characters from Beatles songs is pulling in audiences at the prestigious Moscow Art Theatre (MKhAT) but raising questions about the future of Russian drama.
The MKhAT rivals the Bolshoi and the Maly as a shrine to Russian culture, and for the theatre founded by Konstantin Stanislavsky to mount "Devushki Bitlov" (Girls of the Beatles) is a little like the Royal Shakespeare Company performing video clips or the Comedie Francaise dramatising the life of Johnny Halliday.
The stage where Stanislavsky revolutionised the art of acting and which premiered almost all Anton Chekhov's plays now resounds to the harmonies of John, Paul, George and Ringo as the MKhAT's new artistic director bids to drag the theatre kicking and screaming into the 1960s.
Yet despite its postmodern knowingness, Sergei Volynets' "Girls of the Beatles" gives off a distinct whiff of naphthalene.
The play presents not the Fab Four themselves but Rita, Lucy, Michelle and Sexy Sadie, heroines of some of their best-known songs, adding a TV show presenter, a writer called Sergeant Pepper and walk-on parts for Marx, Lenin, Mayakovsky and Einstein.
Pitching itself as an exploration of the hazy area between reality and fantasy (the TV presenter is played by a real-life TV presenter, Igor Ugolnikov), the play is a frothy confection that would not have been out of place on the London stage in the Swinging Sixties.
Moscow critics have been underwhelmed by the show, appreciating its verve (and unbeatable musical score) but unable to find much sense amid the sound and fury.
Audiences have been happy to be carried along, however, and MKhAT's general manager Alexander Popov told AFP the show had been playing to full houses, and getting fuller by the week.
As the first production to be commissioned, rehearsed and opened at the MKhAT under its new artistic director, Oleg Tabakov, "Girls of the Beatles" may be a weathervane for theatre in Moscow.
In the Russian theatre, directors tend to die with their boots on -- Tabakov's predecessor Oleg Yefremov was still working when he died last May aged 73, and the grand old man of the Taganka, Yury Lyubimov, is soldiering on at 84 -- but time is running out for the old guard, and radical changes in style and personnel are likely at several Moscow playhouses over the next few years.
A younger generation of directors (Tabakov is a mere 67) will face increasing pressure to appeal to "popular" tastes, though Popov denied that the new play was really such a new departure.
"It's more an attempt to revitalise the MKhAT and bring it back the authority it deserves historically and artistically," he said.
The first priority for any theatre is to attract audiences but, he stressed, "we never forget that in the name Moscow Art Theatre there is the word Art."
The play was chosen largely in order to lure Ugolnikov, a nationally-known small-screen performer with an acting background, to join them, and more plays employing his skills were envisaged, Popov said.
However John Freedman, a Moscow-based writer on theatre, was apprehensive of the new direction that the choice of Volynets' play portended.
Noting that Tabakov had for many years been a popular actor, he said the new artistic director appeared to be trying to make the MKhAT a commercial theatre. "But if that's the road he's going down, it bodes very ill for the theatre," he warned.
Freedman agreed with Popov on one important point: there is an impressive wealth of young writing talent coming through with new work and getting it performed.
Popov said his theatre, just one of around 250 in Moscow, received two or three manuscripts a day.
Freedman dismissed reports of a lack of good new Russian dramatists and said he could name three "right off the bat" who were representative of the abundance of talent available.
Maxim Kurochkin, whose "Kukhnya" (The Kitchen) starring Oleg Menshikov is currently a huge box-office hit, had written "a wonderful play," he said.
And among women writers there were Olga Mukhina, whose "Tanya, Tanya" has been running for more than five years, and Nadezhda Ptushkina, one of Russia's most productive writers, whose "Christmas Dreams" was on the bill right there at the MKhAT.
© 2001 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)