Pleasures of the flesh

How a nerve-shredding new dance production from Dave St-Pierre has divided the critics.

"Attention-seeking behaviour" is a term given by grown-ups to infantile provocation, gratuitous disruption or unruly display. Think of toddlers, tantrums, the "terrible twos". Theatre performance is also - on some level - a kind of attention-seeking, albeit a sanctioned, grown-up kind.

Well, last week at Sadler's Wells Theatre, in Dave St-Pierre's piece Un peu de tendresse bordel de merde! (translated as "a little tenderness for crying out loud", which excises the smutty/shitty overtones of the French), the two kinds of attention-seeking collided explosively - and there was fallout. People either loved it or hated it. There were plenty of walkouts; also, a standing ovation. "An amazing evening of theatre," enthused Judith Flanders at artsdesk.com, while the Observer's Luke Jennings called it "lazy, derivative and very, very provincial" and the Telegraph's Mark Monahan slammed it with a zero-star rating.

It was certainly impossible to remain unaffected - but was that a response to serious theatre or a reaction to bad behaviour? The polarising moment, for many, was a scene in which the company men, wearing blond wigs but otherwise bollock-naked, invaded the audience with a volley of high-pitched shrieks, scampering over seats and sitting on laps, jiggling their willies in people's faces and shoving their bums around - a horde of toddlers in adult guise running amok among civilised grown-ups.

In some parts of the theatre, this produced quite a party atmosphere, albeit with a dangerous edge. Elsewhere - perhaps because boys will be boys - the boisterous spirits became more directly confrontational (just in front of me, a dancer tried to give Monahan an earful of dick, and Jennings had his specs taken and spat on). When the performers eventually returned to the stage, the sense of relief among the audience was palpable, though undermined by "Sabrina" (Enrica Boucher), the evening's compere, who gave us a withering smile and said "Congratulations! You have just survived the first twenty minutes."

During the remaining hour and a half, there were further assaults on sensibilities and sensitivities, though mainly on stage rather than in the auditorium. There was mock-masturbation, more spitting, lots of screaming, various terrible twosomes (dysfunctional couples are like mother's milk to contemporary dance). Oh, and Sabrina shagged a cake.

Some of the scenes looked obviously influenced by the late, great choreographer Pina Bausch (who once called St-Pierre's dancers "my pornographic illegitimate children"): a line of men hitting their own faces; a solitary woman, a wreck of quivering nerves, who is kissed in turn by each of the men. The dancers robed and disrobed, the men donning their squeaky-voiced, blond-wigged personae as they doffed their clothes. Sabrina, offering a wise-cracking, tough-talking commentary on the action that menaced the audience and dissed the dancers, stayed clothed until the final transcendent scene, when the stage turned into a big puddle of water. The dancers slid across it on their tummies, or thrashed like spawn in a pool - and Sabrina finally became one of them, all as naked and innocent as the day they were born, doused in water as if it were amniotic fluid.

Most, like the Guardian's Judith Mackrell, found the finale an "astonishing coup de théâtre" - attention-grabbing in the grown-up, theatrical way. Much of the rest you could call attention-seeking in the infantile-behaviour way - wilfully provocative, unruly, gross. You might find it disarmingly childlike or tiresomely so, but either way it is hard to ignore.

Still, hard to ignore is not the same as worthy of attention. So here is why I found the piece worthwhile - transfixing, even. For me, the iconic moment was not the attention-seeking audience invasion, but the opening scene (echoed later on) of two duets. In one, a woman implores, pleads, yanks, tugs at her impassive partner; in the other, a woman rails, beats, punches, flails against hers. They looked like toddlers' tantrums, one showing naked need, the other raw rage; both revealed a blind, consuming desperation for attention. You could take them as yet more dysfunctional twosomes, but I read them as St-Pierre's relation to his audience: needing, provoking, forcing us into some kind of reaction. St-Pierre hadn't just mixed two opposed kinds of attention-seeking - one infantile, the other adult - but joined them.

The boundary-breaking felt physical. Once the audience had been invaded I felt as tenderised as meat, my nerves shredded - as if the social skin between audience and performers was now bruised and raw (though not in my case violated: I hadn't been on the receiving end of any unwanted attention). And from then on, I was sensitised: the scenes of brutality, need and innocence felt as tender as a wound.

Sanjoy Roy is the New Statesman's dance critic

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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge