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It’s quite fitting, once you consider it, that the Premio Europa for theatre should be awarded in the small Sicilian town of Taormina. Theatre has always played a key role here, in this cliff-side village opposite volcanic Mt. Etna, since one of the world’s oldest and most complete Greek theatres is in the center of town. The acoustics there are so fine, today, that a whisper that an actor’s whisper carries to the farthest seat.

The Premio Europa, sponsored by the European Union, awarded by an international jury, went this past year not to a strictly European director but, amazingly, to Lev Dodin of the Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg, Russia. Previous winners of this most prestigious (and lucrative) of all theatre prizes have been Ariane Mnoushkine, Peter Brook, Giorgio Strehler, Heiner Muller, Robert Wilson, Luca Ronconi, and Pina Bausch – all Europeans, or, in Wilson’s case, a director working in Europe. For Dodin to have been chosen for this honor is thus quite singular.

I first met Lev Dodin, in 1987, when Michael Bessie and I were in Russia to bring out Mikhail Gorbachev’s book PERESTROIKA. Dodin and his company had never been seen outside Russia. Indeed, they hadn’t been seen much inside Russia, since Dodin’s productions did anything but toe the party line; nor did he butter up the officials of the all powerful theatre union. So for him to be, in anno domini 2000, a “legendary” character, as he is so often called, is a reputation fashioned in a dozen years! (And bear in mind that the company plays in Russian.)

Dodin, a native Siberian, began his theatre work in the St. Petersburg Drama School, which still today feeds the Maly Theatre. Training young actors in Stanislavskian style; working in improvisation, music, dance, gymnastics; studying the classics, but also modern authors like Platonov and William Golding, he formed an amazingly flexible ensemble. And they study in depth. When they began working on Feodor Abramov’s novel BROTHERS AND SISTERS, which Dodin adapted for the stage fifteen years ago, and which has become their signature piece, the entire company lived in a Siberian village for months on end. Dodin thinks of his permanent company as his family, and in a large sense, they are.

For Russians, theatre is not entertainment but reality, illumination, learning, and even perhaps even kind of religion. In Dodin’s case, the subtle realism of the acting is merged with a high sense of theatricality and a kind of narrative drive that make his plays sell out everywhere. “Brothers and Sisters,” set in a Siberian kolkhose during World War II, has over forty characters, but each one is as individual a portrait as the crowd in a Benozzo Gozzoli painting. And although the particular privations of that time have changed, the face of human suffering, the soaring spirit of heroic humanity, the willingness of women to adapt, to endure, to nurture the young and the old, have such a universal echo that the play and the acting – most of the original cast is still with it – have a freshness that can only come of a kind of melding of the actors with their personae in the course of the years.

In Taormina you can have a kind of theatre orgy. During the week of the prize-giving there are at least two productions a day, at various sites. Peter Brook sent his African play, “Le Costume.” The theatre company Hollandia performed a remarkable play called “Voices” in flawless English, American, Dutch and even street Italian. They are a young company that performs in unusual places – markets and football fields, for instance – for audiences that are not the usual theatre-goers. Thomas Ostermeier from the Schaubühne am Leninerplatz, in Germany, brought a play. And also honored were Ibrahim Spahic of Sarajevo, who kept his theatre running during the worst times of the siege of his city, saying that art is really the only answer to rifles, and Jovan Circillov, of Belgrade. There was so much talent running around in this small town that it made you quite dizzy. And in every café at least six languages were going simultaneously. Theatre critics, journalists, actors, directors, playwrights from all over the globe were arguing, laughing, drinking, making friends. It was as though the ancient Greeks were laughing over our shoulders, knowing that drama might save a city.

The plays that Lev Dodin brought to Taormina to celebrate his prize were “Dom” (The House), the third play in the Abramov trilogy, and “Molly Sweeney,” by Brian Friel. “Dom” takes place in the same village as “Brothers and Sisters,” but after the war is over. Now the villagers discover that the peace they had longed for brings its share of misery, state stupidity, human foibles, and even hunger. “Our courage has run out,” says one of the main characters. The basic dichotomy is between those who love the land and the village, and those interested in following orders from Moscow and their place in the party hierarchy. The symbol of heroic humanity, love, and kindness in this bleak world is Lizaveta, played by the Maly’s star and Dodin’s wife, Tatiana Shestakova. As in “Brothers and Sisters,” there is a timeless, placeless humanity in the tale, that takes it onto common ground. A capacity audience gave it that rapt attention that only great art commands.

The other Maly production in Taormina was Brian Friel’s “Molly Sweeney,” translated by the company’s dramaturg and essential intellectual, Mikhail Stronin. It, too, showed Dodin’s way with a simple set, fine acting, and dramatic force in a tragic setting.

These fine-tuned actors, who often will work on a play for years before they face an audience, seem able to convey extremes of emotions, several emotions, simultaneously. A realism that can fly off into the fantastic and back at a moment’s notice, a quick narrative pace, a sudden burst of humor and music, and people you know, even though they may live on a Siberian Kolkhose – these are Dodin’s characteristics, which have brought him such swift recognition.

What kind of man is Lev Dodin? A first impression recalls a Siberian bear. He is heavy-set, but not round. The beard and the thick hair are graying now, but that adds color. Intensity, ardor emanate from him. There is a searchlight behind those eyes. Once, when I was driving him somewhere I caught him looking at me as though he were studying a painting called “woman driving a car.” Lev and I communicate across a language barrier: he has refused to come out of Russian although he now circles the globe, and my Russian is in kindergarten. But we feel close, as though we know each other well. And in a way, we do. We once had to fight a battle together, and that gave us the chance to take each other’s measure. Generally Misha Stronin is with us, translating; but once, when we were alone in a room, a bilingual person arrived and said, What have you two been doing? and we both answered, in two languages, Talking. Maybe this capacity to see is what inspires actors: you feel that Lev knows you. What you will do, what you will not do. Like all artists he is instinctive and passionate, a studier of body speech as much as language; yet when he teaches or converses, there is a honed intelligence and the fallout of a well-stocked mind. He grew up under Soviet mis-rule and must have rebelled early on against an authority that sacrificed the human to the system. One of the first things I noticed about all his plays –especially “Stars in the Morning Sky” and the Abramov plays – is Dodin’s love, appreciation, knowledge of women. He knows that they instinctively put human needs before glory, advancement or ideas. In a way, I suspect this big, burly man thinks like a woman.

I said earlier that we once fought a battle together. It was like this. The Maly’s first venture into international waters was in 1988. The powerful Soviet theatre union had allowed them to accept an invitation to take “Stars in the Morning Sky” to Canada. That was to be followed by a performance of “Brothers and Sisters” in New York, at Lincoln Center’s summer international festival. Somehow, I heard a rumor that the assigned producer in New York had tampered with the funds to put on this play; that he was perhaps going to put them into another production. I phoned Lev in Canada and told him and Misha what I had heard. Immediately, they flew down to New York, and the rumor proved to be true. As we were studying the situation, Lev pulled out his passport. His Canadian visa, the same one as for all the actors, was going to expire the next day. The company couldn’t stay in Canada; and they had no money at all. No money was none, not even enough for sandwiches. In those days, funds could not be taken out of the Soviet Union. The only thing to do was to bring them to New York. I contemplated the possibility of having twenty people sleeping on the floor of my two-room apartment.

They arrived, baffled, miserable, uncomprehending. I called everyone I knew who had a large apartment, and asked them if they could feed twenty-five people – beans, pasta, anything at all. People came to the rescue generously. A small amount of money came from the Soros Foundation; a hotel chain agreed to put them up, briefly; and we went to work to see what could be done. I knew that if this visit turned into a fiasco, their chances of getting out of Russia again would be slim. So, we turned to the press. The Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and, finally, the New York Times, ran the story: “Stranded young Russian actors.” When a photographer turned up, the members of the company, suddenly, were actors. Within moments, they looked starved, forlorn, waifs borne on the winds. The resulting photograph marshalled the Russian émigré community, and food, transportation, sympathy appeared like magic.

In the end, Lev, theatrical as always, thought up a scheme. We would hold a press conference, in the hotel. There would be forty empty chairs, for the forty actors of “Brothers and Sisters” who weren’t there. (They were in Russia.) Amazingly, it worked. The head of the festival found a slush fund and agreed to put on “Stars in the Morning Sky.” The actors were already in New York; the sets could be brought down from Canada.

“Stars in the Morning Sky” is set in a village near Moscow. The story is this: The Moscow Olympics are about to begin. What can be done about the prostitutes who roam Moscow’s streets? The glorious Soviet Union has no prostitutes, you see, and the international visitors are about to arrive. The solution: round up the women and send them away till the Olympics are over. Suddenly, a small village is inundated by ladies of the night….

Hilarious, sad, rich in humanity and understanding, the play was a smash success – it was sold out every night the company played. The Maly returned to Leningrad in triumph.




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