A gnarled but obviously foam-filled tree is hulked by men in dungarees, a baffled audience surges to pass leafy branches forward, and a fountain spouts water as it’s dragged off stage, pursued by a yapping dog. Russian director Dmitry Krymov first made his name as a designer, and he shows us so in a powerful opener that throws out the visual rulebook of staged Shakespeare, as well as discarding the courtly Athens lovers these traditional artefacts symbolise. Instead, we get is the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe in its oldest form, supposedly liberated from KGB archives for our entertainment and bafflement. And it’s not even ready, we’re told – in a sort of circular Beckettian prologue delivered by the group’s shock-headed spokesperson, the humbly hapless professional clown Boris Opletaev. But this spectacularly operatic shower of comedic gold leaves us anything but shortchanged.
Like a ramshackle parody of Moscow State Circus’s regimented fun, a huge array of tricks are thrown into this sawdusted arena. Pyramus and Thisbe are played by 14 foot (they asked for four foot, the actors lament) puppets. They need the whole cast’s support to love each other, and their every sigh reverberates through the small crowd below them that manipulates them on sticks. They’ve a bizarre living doll collection of barely hidden tricks up their ragged sleeves. Pyramus has a metal grid for a stomach, ready to be stabbed through, and his articulated metal hands click and waver like still grasshoppers before encircling a bunch of flowers. In an agonisingly choreographed love duet, he presents it to Thisbe – whose simpler hands can hardly grasp it. Acrobat brothers Anatoly and Vladimir Shustov bridge the gap, one balancing on the other’s head. The puppets are voiced by opera singers, whose soaring voices try desperately to fill the still wider chasm between serious theme and risible execution; Thisbe’s “voice” Natalia Gorchakova grows increasingly indignant as her puppet’s whole head flips open to receive Pyramus’s gift of a whole pineapple, wets herself, then breaks his heart with Opletaev’s agonising slow, red-ribbon tangling assistance.
But the real tortured romance here is between audience and actors. In Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, the courtly lovers make doubtful asides, but here, the court standing judgement over the players is the audience. They’re supplemented, or exemplified, by an onstage audience which turn up in monochrome finery, ready to convey their disapproval with sniffs and defiantly recieved phonecalls. Much-loved and lauded Russian actress Liya Akhedzhakova vigorously beats away the sawdust on the half-built seating stands with a bouquet of flowers, while on the other side of the stage two men discover that a bucket is structurally integral. She announces that “this is avant garde”, hilariously halting the surreal action on stage.
Shakespeare’s Rude Mechanicals are funny by accident, lumpenly stumbling their way over a mangled tragedy. With acrobats and clowns in their midst, the Dmitry Krymov Lab are lighter of foot, treading a fascinating dance that’s rude and knowing at the same time. At their bidding, a projection screen appears to offer metatextual comment on their Russian dialogue. At one point, they mime vigorously while it announces that “their conversation touches upon the broad spectrum of versification”. Simultaneously, a tiny trained dog (named Venya) does a series of tricks in a poignant spotlight – monopolising an audience’s attention while the screen’s dramaturgid explanations roll on. The actors mock audience perceptions of Russia, too. Akhedzhakova tells fantastical stories of village life involving rogue bears and childhood pregnancies. A comic list, in the prologue, of famous lovers includes Tchaikovsky and his coachman: before the actors hastily backtrack in fear.
Although the show spends most of its first half feeling so unfinished it might not be able to start, when its giant puppets limber up and stretch their limbs they produce a reading of the play that’s miraculously complete. The Dmitry Krymov Lab dismantle their audience’s expectations, then woo them back with a perversely tender, witty and savage love story told from crowd to crowd. By the time the tiny ballerinas come out at curtain call, we’re all puppets on their strings.
by Alice Saville, 11.11.2014