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.

 

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.

 

 

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

Tara Isabella Burton's work has appeared in The Spectator, Guernica Daily, Lady Adventurer, and more. In 2012 she won The Spectator's Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize. She is represented by the Philip G. Spitzer Literary Agency; her first novel is currently on submission.

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Drama without sensation: A Separation is an unsettling novel of distances

In Katie Kitamura’s novel, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort.

In a 2013 interview with Guernica, the online magazine, the novelist Katie Kitamura discussed how publishing’s “deeply patronising attitude” towards female readers results in overtly feminine book covers, featuring, for instance, women in bathing suits. “That’s not the kind of book cover that makes me want to buy a book,” she said.

The cover of Kitamura’s latest novel, A Separation, does, surprisingly, feature a woman in a bathing suit. But there is something quietly unsettling about this picture: the woman, who has her back to us, is awkwardly cropped out of frame from the elbows up, and she is sitting at the edge of an oddly shaped pool. Most of the cover is solid turquoise – a bright wash of negative space.

Kitamura’s unnamed narrator is a poised literary translator. As the novel opens in London, we learn that she is married to Christopher (a charming, haphazard non-author) but, in secret, they have been living separately for the past six months. When she receives a telephone call from Christopher’s mother, Isabella, informing her that he has seemingly gone missing in Greece, she doesn’t let on about her disintegrating marriage but boards a plane to look for him.

Much of the rest of the novel takes place in Greece: at a “very pleasant” hotel, in “perfect weather”, the pool “heated to a very comfortable temperature”. The area has recently experienced a string of devastating fires, leaving patches of scorched earth. The location has an almost eerie surface stillness that jars with the mystery at its heart. In this way, Kitamura (an art critic as well as novelist) creates a setting somehow reminiscent of David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, Christopher’s sudden disappearance leaving behind no visible ripples.

The narrator, too, has a glassy composure at odds with the tumultuous events. On deciding to end her marriage formally, she shows neither despair nor relief, but anxiety about the etiquette. “I assumed – I had no prior experience to go on – that asking for a divorce was always discomfiting,” she says with typical understatement, “but I could not believe it was always this awkward.” Of her feelings for her new partner, Yvan, she notes that they seem more like “administration rather than passion”, and then offers a moderated gloss of Hamlet, “You cannot say you did it out of love, since at your age romantic passions have grown weak, and the heart obeys reason.

Her emotional separation from the trauma of her circumstances allows the narrator to examine the facts of her husband’s disappearance. She knows Christopher was unfaithful and she immediately identifies the hotel receptionist as the object of his attentions. We never see the narrator professionally translating, but the novel is concerned with her attempts to read the deeper meanings behind the remarks and behaviour of those around her. She finds it easy to imagine unseen contexts to conversations: an argument between Christopher’s parents, an embrace between her taxi driver and the hotel receptionist. As she writes, “Imagination, after all, costs nothing.”

Her propensity for projection is such that some things remain lost in translation. Even the most minute interactions can be misread. When Christopher’s mother comments that the two women’s love for her son connects them, “she was looking over my shoulder, as if watching someone approach . . . she was staring at nothing”. The novel occupies this imaginative negative space: the gap between what people think and how they appear.

Ultimately, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort. How long will she allow others to read her as the concerned, loving wife? Should she admit she wants to find Christopher in order to request that they separate officially? As her search continues she notes, “There was a small but definite wedge pushing between the person I was and the person I was purporting to be.”

There is a suspenseful and menacing tone to Kitamura’s prose that might trick a reader into thinking, at first, they are in the territory of thrillers such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. Both these novels, like A Separation, have narrators who defy readers’ attempts to fathom their emotional depths and to deal with questions of how well you know anyone – even your own partner. But this is a work free of sensation, or even resolution. As the narrator notes, in the shock of an event it is natural to look for a more dramatic narrative. “But in the end,” she says, “this is only chasing shadows. The real culpability is not to be found in the dark or with a stranger, but in ourselves.”

A Separation by Katie Kitamura is published by Clerkenwell Press (231pp, £12.99)

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution