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Playfulness and pragmatism collide as Georgian theatre comes to London

As a biting satire of President Saakashvili makes its English language debut, Tara Isabella Burton explores the state of a fascinating theatrical tradition.

President Saakashvili, upon whom “The President Has Come to See You” is based.
President Saakashvili, upon whom “The President Has Come to See You” is based. Photograph: Getty Images

 

At the climax of Robert Sturua's production of Twelfth Night, a mainstay of the repertoire at Tbilisi's Rustaveli Theatre, a curious thing happens. After Viola and Orsino, Sebastian and Olivia, have all fallen into one another's arms, their newfound nuptial bliss is disturbed by the sudden appearance of a twenty-foot-tall crucified Jesus onstage behind them. Overcome by terror, our lovers run offstage, followed by Malvolio, Maria, and Feste – here represented as commedia-style clowns – as farce gives way to the solemn drama of the liturgy.

While Sturua's work, which frequently blends cultural tropes in a gleefully carnival mishmash of aesthetics, is perhaps the best-known example of what young Georgian director Paata Tsikolia calls “the playfulness of the approach” of Georgian theatre, it is far from unique on the Georgian stage. In three years in Tbilisi, I've been fortunate enough to see a number of outstandingly innovative productions. Avto Varsimashvili’s A Clockwork Orange, for example, set in the bandit-ridden Tbilisi of the 1990s, uses a live video feed of Alex and his anarchic droogs to create a gleefully nonlinear, utterly engrossing reimagining of Burgess’s novel, while Rezo Gabriadze's hauntingly beautiful marionettes enact a harrowing story of love and loss in the quietly epic The Battle of Stalingrad. So too Levan Tsuladze's meta-theatrical As You Like It, which envisioned the characters’ Arden escapes as a play within a play. (The show’s London premiere received a standing ovation, as well as effusive praise from The Guardian’s Kate Kellaway.)

Certainly, Georgia’s tradition of theatrical excellence is long-standing. Many of the major movements of European art, from modernism to constructivism, found an early home on the Georgian stage in the ambitious, arresting work of designers like Petre Otskheli, whose work recently received a retrospective at Tbilisi’s National Gallery. Likewise, some of Georgia’s most notable painters – among them Elene Akhlvediani and David Kakabadze – moonlighted as designers. But until recently, notes Donald Rayfield, Professor Emeritus of Russian and Georgian at Queen Mary, University of London, there have been few modern Georgian playwrights to match the wealth of acting and directing talent on offer, with interpretations of Georgian work largely confined to revivals of nineteenth-century farce. “It is the new generation of young dramatists which has revitalised Georgian theatre,” says Rayfield.

Breaking down cultural as well as political taboos – Rayfield highlights how today's Georgian playwrights relish “the freedom to talk about sex and use words once considered unprintable”, playwrights like Dato Tavadze and Lasha Bugadze are re-imagining the possibilities of the Georgian stage to examine and explore the new boundaries of Georgia's social landscape, from “middle-aged women working illegally in Greece as carers to support their families; divorcees forced to share a room, because they have no means of finding separate housing; young men using any means they can to extort money to get out of the country and start a career; people with psychiatric and other medical problems unable to access help; abandoned children desperately looking for families.”

Now one such dramatist is making his English-language debut, as Rayfield's translation of Bugadze's The President Has Come to See You premieres in a rehearsed reading on 13 March at the Royal Court Theatre. Bugadze's provocative, politically biting satire depicts President Saakashvili (whose ruling party has since been defeated by the opposition) as, in Rayfield’s words, a “as a priapic, neurotic egotistical maniac and clown”, unable to cope with the demands of leadership. That Bugadze “dares to satirise the Georgian authorities” is no mean act of courage; in 2011, Robert Sturua was asked to step down from his post as director of the Rustaveli National Theatre after making disparaging remarks about Saakashvili’s Armenian ancestry. (The official rationale for his dismissal – xenophobia – is perhaps slightly belied by his reinstatement post-elections.)

Yet for the current generation of Georgian theatre-makers, optimism is tinged by a pragmatic awareness of the country's limitations for young playwrights. Nino Basilia, a filmmaker and director, laments what she sees as Georgian audiences' reluctance to embrace new writing, as well as the prevalence of outdated training techniques at the country's drama schools. “[We need] institutional transformation,” she says. The difficulty of getting a visa to engage with theatre-makers abroad, she notes, only compounds the difficulty; decrying “locked borders”, Basilia laments that emerging artists lack the opportunity to watch, and learn from, contemporary theatre.

Tsikolia is similarly wary. While he is effusive in his admiration for the Georgian theatrical tradition, he is less enthusiastic about its current prospects. “Georgian theatre is in serious crisis”, he says – only Bugadze has been able to successfully transition his work into an international career. “I think its just a slow and painful process of recovering from Soviet and post-Soviet trauma...[we're]...still waiting for The Generation to conquer the Georgian stage.”

“The President Has Come to See You” premiers in a rehearsed reading at 6 pm on Wednesday 13 March at the Royal Court Theatre.