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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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era