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.

Stavros Damos for the New Statesman
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Val McDermid Q&A: “I have great respect for Nicola Sturgeon”

The crime writer on her heroes, joining a band and winning Mastermind. 

Val McDermid is the author of 39 books, the majority being crime fiction. She was the first student from a Scottish state school to attend St Hilda’s College, Oxford. She also sponsors the McDermid Stand at Raith Rovers’s football ground, named  in honour of her father, a club scout.

What’s your earliest memory?

Sitting on my father’s shoulders in the town square in Kirkcaldy at Christmas time. I remember the impossibly tall Christmas tree covered in lights. And there was a coin-operated machine about the size of a table football game that featured plastic figures of pipers and drummers moving back and forth to the tinny sound of “Scotland the Brave”.

Who was your childhood hero?

Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen were my heroes. I’m not much given to hero worship, but I still admire them both.

What political figure, past or present,do you look up to?

I had considerable admiration for the late John Smith. I think he would have made very different choices from those of Tony Blair. And I do have great respect for Nicola Sturgeon.

What was the last book that changed your thinking?

Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways opened my eyes to the reality of life for many of the immigrants who come to this country; the price they pay and the persistence they show in trying to make a decent life for themselves and their families. It puts a human face on the empty posturing of so many politicians.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

The life of Christopher Marlowe – the same as it was last time, when I won.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I’m happy where I am. Chances are, any other time or place, I’d be a lowly peasant with no way out.

What TV show could you not live without?

It’s a toss-up between University Challenge and Only Connect.

Who would paint your portrait?

I’m currently sitting for a longitudinal drawing by Audrey Grant, an Edinburgh artist. It’s a fascinating process.

What’s your theme tune?

“First We Take Manhattan” by Leonard Cohen. It’s got energy and indomitability. It’s about not giving up or giving in.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? Have you followed it?

Early in my career, I asked Sara Paretsky for advice. She said: “Never do anything that isn’t tax deductible.” I’ve done my best to stick to that.

What’s currently bugging you?

How long have you got? Almost every element of Westminster politics, for starters…

What single thing would make your life better?

A clone to do the stuff I don’t want to.

When were you happiest?

I’ve never been happier than I am now.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

I’d like to think I could have been a singer-songwriter. I’ve recently started performing again in a band with a bunch of friends – Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers – and it’s the best fun I’ve had in ages.

Are we all doomed?

It’s hard not to think so, but I remain optimistic.

“Insidious Intent” by Val McDermid is published by Little, Brown on 24 August

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear