The Theatre

by Andrea Kapsaski

For ten years in a row, the Russian playwright, filmmaker, actor and director Victor Sobchak and his theatre ensemble Act Provocateur International have fascinated as well as provoked and irritated the audiences at the annual Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

After the company's success last year with Sartre's "No Exit", Strindberg's "Miss Julie", Andy McQuade's "Valentine's Day" and Victor Sobchak's "Fucking Asylum Seekers", "Russian Beauty" and "Lilith" (co written by Andy McQuade), Act Provocateur International will be participating at the Edinburgh Festival with eight new productions. 

Victor Sobchak's biography is not an easy one. The former teacher of drama and mime, who graduated from Leningrad and Moscow, was locked up in a Soviet Military Mental Hospital on his wedding day to be "cured" for his "obsession with Western literature and drama".

"I was prosecuted by the KGB for putting up plays that had too much of a Western influence. I had injections every day, three times a day, and was lectured on the way I should behave. It was very difficult to cope with everything".

After six months, Sobchak was released and able to set up his own theatre company, Victor Sobchak's Experimental Theatre, but it was only after Perestroika that he was free to produce the works of leading playwrights like Beckett and Sartre who had been banned in his country. The company, including Sobchak's wife, the actress and costume designer Elena and their two sons, toured the world through private sponsorship and funding in the 90s and ended up in Britain for the Edinburgh Festival. The couple decided to stay in England and work on creating an Anglo-Russian Theatre and Training Studio. "We decided to set up Art-Vic which specialized in unknown Russian classical and modern literature".

Apart from a number of stage and TV appearances, he also appeared in films like "The Jackal", "Ghost Boat", "Days That Shook The World" and "The Man Who Cried" 

A few years ago, Victor Sobchak founded Act Provocateur International(API), a multicultural Theatre company, together with the Spanish actress Iaione Perez and the British actor, director and playwright Andy McQuade. Apart from being one of the few multicultural companies in Britain (with students and actors coming from more than 30 countries), API is also one of the very few ensembles in today's theatre world. "We are a family", says Victor Sobchak, "and I am very proud when my students appear on international stages and screens. But the principal actors always return after a season abroad". He runs not only acting and master classes, but also workshops and trains stage managers and directors to be, and gives young actors and playwrights the chance to perform not only on his stage, but also at the Edinburgh and international festivals. "It is not about the directing. I can direct any play at any theatre. I want to give young people the chance to enter the world of theatre and help them on their way. That is all I am interested in". Asked about his background and ideals in theatre, he answers: "Of course there is the Russian background, Stanislavski and others. Also Brecht and Antonin Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty. But of course, I have my own visions and ideas, and I think that is what every director should be capable of".

In 1935, after separating from Vitrac, Antonin Artaud founded the "Theatre of Cruelty" in which terror and pain were integrated as vital parts of the concept. By cruelty, he meant not sadism or causing pain, but rather a violent, physical determination to shatter the false reality, which, he said, lies like a shroud over our perceptions. Cruelty, to Artaud the most important part of every play, meant in this sense the strain of the audience during the performance, which should be aesthetically shocked with the cooperation of different parts like light and details on the stage.

Artaud's lesson is of the cruelty and tyranny of unpredictable, unfathomable forces that transcend the reasoned limits of reality, as humanity understands them. The methods used to deliver this brutal lesson are based on a theory of generating a series of shocks, affected by the collision of images, sounds, and savage acts conveyed in a primarily non-verbal, syn-aesthetic language as Sergei Eisenstein discovered in the film, and which Artaud hoped to establish in the theatre.

So, what is Victor Sobchak's "Theatre of Cruelty"?

Among the playwrights he has staged during the last years are Ionesco, Chekhov, Sartre, Miri Ben-Shalom, Gogol, Genet, Nabokov and Michel de Ghelderode. "Ghelderode was practically unknown in Britain. He is a fascinating playwright. We have done "Red Magic", "School for Buffoons", "Escurial" and recently "An Actor Makes His Exit" and will do "The Woman At The Tomb" soon."

The list of the plays for the upcoming Edinburgh Fringe Festival is a long one. Chekhov's "The Seagull", Nabokov's "Lolita" in a new direction under Andy McQuade, Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment", two plays by William Whitehurst, "Pigeon Man Apocalypse" and "American Football" and two plays by the Russian playwright Radzinski, "Nero" and "An Old Actress in the Role of Dostoevsky's Wife".

But actually, only one play is by Radzinski. The "Nero" to be performed by API was re-written by Victor Sobchak and Andy McQuade in their attempt to translate and adapt the original play. They eventually realized that there were parts missing, and wrote a new play, inspired by Radzinski.

Edvard Radzinski, born 23 September 1936, is the author of the best selling The Last Tsar, Stalin,and The Rasputin File. He is one of Russia's most celebrated playwrights and is after Chekhov, Russia's most frequently staged playwright, and his plays have won him international acclaim. A trained historian, Radzinski spent twenty-five years on research and writing his life of Nicholas II, The Last Tsar, which was an international bestseller. His most recent book is a life of Stalin. He is also known in Russia for his work in television, having twice won the TEFI award, most recently for his series on Napoleon. 

After seeing "Nero", I had the chance to talk with Victor Sobchak, Andy McQuade and Geir Kjelland, one of API's principal actors. 

AK – How did you come up with the name "Act Provocateur"? 

AMQ – I was thinking about a name for us–I went through our favourite writers and works and thought how they all seemed designed to provoke thought—so Act Provocateur seemed perfect as it implies what we do best: entertainment with a beautiful undercurrent of thought provoking issues, sometimes highly controversial. 

AK – You are a theatre ensemble. That is unfortunately something you hardly find anymore these days. 

VS – Yes we are like a family. The fact that we work so closely together shows on stage. The actors know each other and have a completely different and more powerful stage presence. 

AMQ – Coming from a musical and bands background I've been staggered by the amount of friends I know who've never bothered with dry theatre at all, then attended a performance of one of our shows and are blown away by how 'in your face' our productions are. And these are friends who are deeply involved in cutting edge electronica, the digital revolution in arts and music and sit through an hour or so of a play in a black box with nothing more technical than a few lights and a stereo! In terms of classical reworking of the masters of theatre of cruelty and absurd, such as Ionesco and Ghelderode, you'd be hard pushed to find more faithful, intelligent, cruel and comic productions than we've staged and so I find now that my sights are aimed at a more contemporary canvas with which Victor and I can expose this beautiful and funny, cruel and fucked-up world. The works of Sarah Kane instantly spring to mind. 

GK – I auditioned and was cast in my first job with API almost two years ago, and during my first read-through I was appalled, Victor was blocking my lines! In a read-through, I thought; I can't relate to what he said, I have to make my own decisions. At the next rehearsal Victor said, after running a scene: 'Geir, you're a genius!' and I knew that he was open for my views as well. I've done a lot with the company since, some bad, but mostly very good stuff and I've stretched my acting skills. I think there's need for a Company like API in Britain, bringing foreign drama to the stage here." 

AK – You chose to do a play by Radzinski, "Nero", which eventually inspired you to write a new play? 

VS – We were working already on the translation of the play, but during the course of time, we felt that something was missing, and we created our own play with completely new, stronger characters. We have changed not only the original title, but we made the real adaptation, we did cut off one character and distributed some of Nero's lines among Amour, Venus and Antony Flavius. 

AK – Assuming that Nero stands for Stalin, what does your Nero stand for? Why did you choose that play and what is your approach towards Radzinski? 

 VS – Nero of course, can be associated with Stalin. But with any of the great dictators as well...Hitler, Mussolini etc...Radzinski creates a parallel in his play between 'bad' leaders such as Claudius, Tiberius and Nero...we can add Caligula as well. So, for me Nero is just one from the long list of the most cruel world dictators. But because I really love to work with 'theatre of cruelty' for me political cruelty and oppression of Nero are 'the given circumstances', something that the audience knows anyway, even in very general terms. I don't want to repeat and recite the list of his was done...for me it is much more interesting to make an investigation of the roots of his cruelty, in his own personal terms, his personal life story. What is the driving force for him to become a dictator? I think Radzinski really tries to explore those sides of Nero and dictatorship. So in Nero I am interested in his personality...twisted and wicked, but he is a human being and not an ordinary one. To kill everyone around is the most obvious thing for any dictator, especially to kill relatives, friends and colleagues. Why? A simple thing–to survive himself at first hand. Another thing–to have absolute and ultimate power. It is an obsession and very big one. Perhaps it was the reason why I chose 'Nero'. The psychological portrait of the genius and cruel dictator is a very tempting thing. Radzinski did it brilliantly. My and Andy's approach was to keep the author's main ideas but make them a bit more clear and contemporary (a lots of people had criticized Radzinski that his play is very much 'talking heads' rather then performance). It is what I wanted to achieve – to use deep and clever ideas and historical research to be more visual and if you want, entertaining performance.

AMQ – Although I am obviously aware the play is a 'reference' to Stalin I personally don't think it's 'about' Stalin. There is too much that is historically aimed and accurate and specific to the story of Nero. It may be that in the original Russian version the references are more frequent and the association much more obvious, but I adapted Victor's translation and it may be that he opted to exclude the more overtly political ingredients.

There are most certainly obvious parallels, Nero–absolute power/Stalin-absolute power; Nero–paranoia/Stalin-paranoia and finally but most of all Radzinski simply being Russian. But one must exercise caution with this easy leap. It is a common western misconception that every play written or adapted by a Russian dealing with power, politics or oppression must be about Communism or its attachments: I remember we performed First Love by Beckett once in Edinburgh–Victor's adaptation–and found a gas mask that we thought would just look so cool on Christ carrying the cross. Next day, the reviews spoke about the omissible reference to Chernobyl; Victor found it simply hilarious.

AK – What is your view about political theatre in general?

VS–I have no 'general' idea about political theatre. You're absolutely right: almost every play is political. But I believe that political theatre must be very disturbing, provocative and if you want, even politically incorrect. Why? To emphasize the main's what I tried to achieve in 'Fucking Asylum Seekers' at last year's Edinburgh Festival and that is, what we will do with the play 'American Football' by William Whitehurst this year in Edinburgh. For me, for political theatre, as for any other styles in theatre– we have to split up the audience regarding any topic that we are exploring. 'Lolita' – is paedophilia always wrong? Or probably we don't understand sometimes ourselves and call one thing by wrong name? Some people can hate Humbert, some understand him. Of course, politically, the Anglo/American invasion of Iraq is shit, but some people, really believe that USA/UK are bringing  freedom and democracy to Iraq.

AK – There is a lot of nudity and sex in your plays. Having seen quite a number of your productions I am sure that you use sex and nudity on stage not as a means to attract and/or shock the audience, but in order to express your own view. Just guessing… since people are usually more vulnerable with their clothes off, is that what you intend? Or is it after all because most people seem to focus only on two things: "Shopping and Fucking".

VS – I can start with your last sentence about shopping and fucking. Yes, we are very complicated animals, but animals anyway. And in the heart of all our complicated existence, we have a very few basic things as: sex (from love to lust and adoration of naked beautiful bodies), hunger, desire to possess things (from power to cars, etc) and to be entertained.

So if I understand that, how I can avoid sex, lust and nudity on the stage. Another thing–we have enough lies in our every day's life, so I want to be honest on the stage. But honest is often cruelty. We did build up a rosy fairy tale about our modern civilized and intellectual society, but in fact it is one big lie! And evidence is everywhere–why are sex and naked bodies now everywhere on TV and film screens, in advertising...everywhere? Because we need it and it is one of the basic cornerstones of human beings.

Of course, nudity is a very strong weapon in the theatre arsenal. But why not? Why not use it and pretend that in 'intellectual' theatre people don't want to shag each other, they are not using toilets and not throwing up? I want not only to tell stories to people, but show how they happen. Another thing–I am deliberately choosing very controversial plays and there you can always find sex and nakedness. But as you know, I don't always use nakedness and sex in their visual images, sometimes it is just there.

Yes, when we are naked we are vulnerable, we are defenseless, and I use it as well, because when sex is connected with oppression it is horrible. Any normal girl knows that with her first experience when she is taking her knickers off. I remember how vulnerable I was in the Soviet madhouse when the first thing they did was to strip me naked and put me under the cold shower. But at the same time sex can be a very strong weapon, especially for women to manipulate others' emotions and power. And, of course, it provides very strong moments for audiences as well.

GK – For me, "Nero" is about the eternal human desire for power, and is therefore as valid today as then–politically and human. I don't see Seneca as a purely unselfish do-gooder; he had his lust for power. I find the play and role very interesting and got a lot to work on personally. I do however wonder why Radzinski in the original version of the play chose to leave Seneca almost not talking, him being a philosopher and an orator.

AMQ – The sexual element as we have presented it was missing. The play offered up so many spaces for us to improvise and explore them without overburdening the original. Sex as a controlling force is something both Victor and I find fascinating and relevant. The Roman setting in its purest form positively demanded that we include and explore it!

AK - In preparing your role, what considerations were on your mind?  Why did you choose to play Nero the way you do?

AMQ – I prepared the way I do for any show–pure and basic Stanislavski, that is, myself in a given set of circumstances. Don't overcomplicate a complex character. Nero was a sexual predator and had no limits imposed on what he could or couldn't do. What would that do to me? He also had absolute power and absolute power will always corrupt to the very core. When an actor is honest, and I have tried very hard to be, that corruption he finds lurking deep down is a monster indeed and will paint much of the character. It's an easy part to play in many respects because in all humans there is a fundamental hunger for power: sexual, mental, financial, political, emotional. Yet in other ways it's also a bugger (so to speak) as the emotional price after a show is quite heavy. Again, regarding the Stalinist connection, I simply did not see it in enough evidence in the version Victor translated, so my adapted text followed that version and my characterization and portrayal stayed true to the writer's lines in front of me." 

Act Provocateur International at   

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©2006 Andrea Kapsaski
©2006 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Andrea Kapsaski is a writer and producer in London
For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives




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may 2006

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