SHAKESPEARE’S STRANGERS at the Meyerhold Centre working on 'A Tempest': «Shakespeare Reworked: R&D Week»

Blog by Selma Dimitrijevic - 21.9.2015

Seven years ago one of my short plays - through a series of accidental and wonderfully random events - landed on the desk of Russian director Viktor Rhyzhakov. He liked it, he staged it, and ever since I’ve seen it I’ve been looking for a way to work with the theatre he runs – the Meyerhold Centre in Moscow.

Finally, in September this year we got the chance, and with the support of the British Council and Northern Stage we started developing a new project called “A Tempest”, promptly giving ourselves a whole new set of artistic headaches.

It all sounds easy in theory, doesn’t it? 

The idea was that two performers, Emma Bonnici and Gabriel Gawin, designer Oliver Townsend and I will spend a week in Moscow to figure out what Shakespeare’s play The Tempest means to us, Russian audiences, our audiences and our Russian collaborators … and we will know exactly what to do next. Turns out, when in Russia, things are a bit more complicated, and much more exciting than that.

Day 1 - Sunday

We are joined by a Moscow based performer and translator Alice Terekhova, who brings much needed perspective and a wealth of experience of Russian audiences. We strongly disagree on how our prospective audiences would react to simple seductions and provocations from the production. This is good, this is very good; we can imagine each other’s world but have little experience of it. Great for a project with a working subtitle “strangers in a strange land”. 

In the evening we see a student show at the Chekhov Moscow Art Theatre. I watch the audience as much as I watch the show. Fellow students take photos and “Facebook” them, instantly provoking a conversation before the show has finished so  the show becomes accidentally interactive. Wonderful. 

Day 2 – Monday

We meet our British Council hosts who are making all this possible, and who ask us some really hard questions. The team gets excited about a ping-pong table at the British Council offices; I make a note about “games bringing people together” which translates as “there might be a ping-pong table in the show”. I don’t show it to the designer yet. 

We sing a lot. We find out that Emma and Gabriel can create a space for people with absolutely no voice to make music. This is interesting. We run with the idea of teaching the whole audience to sing and put them all in the play. 

All of them. At the same time. With the cast. This is exciting. 

Day 3 – Tuesday 

Sharing the flat with the designer proves very useful - over the morning coffee, before fully awake, we get the idea to give the audience materials, tools and time to build the set every night; to make the world theirs, to invest the time and care in it, to make it their own and for us to make them all our Caliban before we come and snatch their island from them. 

We are excited about this, jokingly I email partners saying we will need another 100k for the project. I hope they will get the joke and won’t fire us.

After a full day at the Meyerhold Centre we meet with our friends from Krymov Lab. Kind hosts that they are, they have arranged for us to see one of their early shows: “Deamon, View from the Above”. So much of what we have been talking about resonates with what we are watching, new questions arrive: do we need to know more about Russia to start this conversation with their audiences, do we need to know less? Why do we want to talk to them so much? Why would they talk to us? What is the offer?

Day 4 – Wednesday

We all go separately into town; to think, to be on our own, to see any part of Moscow that is not the inside of yet another theatre. 

We are excited about 18 performance students who are joining us tomorrow morning. 

Day 5 – Thursday 

The students are not joining us. 

The language has failed us, and all the work we prepared for this morning is now redundant. The panic sets in. Will this jeopardise the project? Does this mean we didn’t fulfil our obligations and funders will ask us to pay the project money back? (Of course not, but this is over 120 hours into thinking, doing and dreaming the project and we are obviously not thinking clearly.)

Although this shakes us a bit, we adjust and go on. Should we do something similar to our audiences? How can we shake them without pushing them away. Would it be rude to pull the rug from under their feet in order to make them feel things rather than think them. How far can we go? How can we know how far can we go with an audience we’ve never worked with before?

That afternoon we meet with a composer Alexander Manotskov – at times it seems he was listening to our rehearsals, that’s how close his ideas are to ours. This is exciting, but we have to work hard on not getting carried away.  I see this could easily become an opera. 

I jokingly email one of the partners saying we will need yet another 100k for the chorus. Not much in terms of reply. I make a note not to send jokey emails again.

In the afternoon we meet with the Artistic Director of the Meyerhold Centre, Viktor, who tells us about his ambitious plans for the next three years. His “escape from the theatre” project sounds very attractive. Can we be part of it? What could we bring to it? How do we make it work? I make a decision to learn Russian properly by the next visit; as good as Alice is, a conversation with a translator-delay is not the most productive brainstorming environment.

Day 6 – Friday

Back in the rehearsal room we finally work on the text. Not on Shakespeare’s text, but on bits of new writing. This is our version of The Tempest, and it is clear now it will have new words in it, possibly not in English, possibly not in Russian, maybe by the end of it, not even that many words. 

In the afternoon we meet Irina Tokareva from Electrotheatre Stanislavsky, and we are blown away by the way things happen there. We promise to come back. 

In Gabriel’s words, by the end of the week we haven’t produced a nicely packaged box representing our project which we can show to our partners and get them excited about it all. What we have done instead is assembled a whole attic full of shiny new things and dusty old things and a lot of random unfamiliar objects, which just might fit together in that imaginary box of ours; and more importantly a group of experienced people itching to make it all happen.

Back in the UK, we are continuing the work and to wrestle with the amount of ideas and options. We have some hard decisions to make, and then we’ll see what comes out. Whatever happens we will keep you updated.