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From Russia with hope

Rachel Halliburton previews a radical Uncle Vanya coming to London.

In 2008, the Lithuanian director Rimas Tuminas received a backstage visit from Vladimir Putin. The play was a 19th-century comedy, Woe from Wit by Alexander Griboyedov, and had been given a standing ovation by the Moscow audience. The president was less effusive. “Why did you show the hero crying at the beginning?” he asked, in remarks broadcast on state TV. “One gets the impression of him as a weak person. But he’s a strong man.”

What would Putin think of Uncle Vanya, Chekhov’s great man of inaction? So far he hasn’t delivered his verdict on Tuminas’s latest production. But if you were looking for credentials for bravery, the Lithuanian’s radical, expressionistic vision takes liberties with Chekhov’s text that ditch the simmering discontent among the dachas for a blackly comic interpretation. Normally in Vanya, you are slowly ambushed by the sense of a world out of kilter but here it erupts right from the start.

Chekhov said theatre should “show life and men as they are, and not as they would look if you put them on stilts”. Yet Tuminas is not the only director to disagree in London this autumn – the Young Vic has put on a subversion of his Three Sisters, complete with a rendition of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. The Vakhtangov Theatre’s Vanya – coming soon to the West End – detonates its ammunition differently. It’s like watching Tarkovsky on nitrous oxide – a succession of carefully constructed poetic images, pervaded by wry slapstick.

I went to watch it in Moscow earlier this year and was struck by two of the tableaux. When the play’s object of desire, Yelena, arrives on stage the action freezes as she poses like a femme fatale on a catwalk. Later, when Astrov and Vanya are drowning their existential sorrows, they drink out of a vast, bulbous flagon from which they need to extract the wine by inhaling on a rubber tube – a routine that makes them look like clowns and the liquid like urine. Vanya is played by the Russian film star Sergey Makovetsky – here he evokes a character who goes from crumpled dishcloth to rueful philosophical fool. While the production’s individual images seem comic and extreme, together they create an elegiac sense of a universe where no one has control over their fate. When the doctor, Astrov, howls to the moon, it’s a brilliant evocation of the political and psychological void facing these characters.

Tuminas has declared that his distinctive approach partly derives from seeing Chekhov as a contemporary writer. First time round, Chekhov was writing during a time of political stasis, shortly after the failure of Alexander II’s reforms adequately to tackle corruption and allow peasants to escape serfdom by buying land from the aristocracy. I put it to Tuminas that perhaps his writing resonates so strongly now because Russia is facing a different kind of political stasis, as Putin’s third term as president exposes the sham of its democracy and the powerlessness of its voters.

Maybe mindful of another backstage visit, he protests that “Russia is striving for democracy but it’s impossible right now to govern it with the principles of democracy”. In defence of Putin he makes a couple of jokey remarks about the similarities between being criticised as a politician and being criticised as a director. But interestingly he also invokes the philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, champion of political freedom in the immediate aftermath of the Russian Revolution: “A country is defined not by its geography, not by its language, but by its hope.”

We are talking a week after demonstrations against Putin’s legislation introducing harsh penalties for protesters and shortly before the trial of Pussy Riot. Hope seems in short supply. The probability is that if Chekhov truly were a contemporary writer, he probably would not be receiving such a rapturous reception in Russia. As it is, this startling production represents one of the more fruitful exchanges between Moscow and London this year.

“Uncle Vanya” (in Russian) plays at the Noel Coward Theatre from 5-10 November

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What if Romney wins?

Flickr/Alfred Grupstra
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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture