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Gaudeamus igitur…
or The Soul after Victory

Gaudeamus, directed by Lev Dodin. Maly Drama Theatre, Saint-Petersburg. Photo © ViktorVassiliev
Gaudeamus, directed by Lev Dodin. Maly Drama Theatre, Saint-Petersburg. Photo © ViktorVassiliev

Standing ovations after the opening night of the newly rehearsed award-winning Glasnost classic Gaudeamus on 27 January 2016 at the Piccolo Teatro – Teatro d’Europa in Milan. Based on the story The Construction Battalion by Sergei Kaledin, the world premiere — that successfully prevailed against the military censorship on 11 July 1990 at the Leningrad Maly Drama Theatre (MDT) — courageously tackled the inhuman treatment of young people liable to military service in the Soviet army, which the young actors back then had experienced themselves first hand. 25 years after the end of the Stalinist Papal State, the Saint Petersburg founding member of the Union des Théâtres de l’Europe (UTE) — since 1998 the Maly Drama Theatre – Théâtre de l’Europe — guests with a post-Soviet generation in the parts of their older fellow ensemble members. The Russian director of the play and UTE President of Honour, Lev Dodin, brilliantly masters the transmission of a cultural heritage whose roots are tightly linked to the history of Europe. The idealization of the past — sadly having become so characteristic of our restoration period today — yields the performance of the young graduates who once again bring to life a fruitful memorial site of timeless relevance.

Civilised and natively dressed, they enter, dispersed and to the sound of military marches from all cardinal directions: Kostya (Evgini Sannikov), Bogdan (Aleksei Morozov), Babai (Philip Moglinitsky), Vlad (Leonid Lutchenko), Itskovitch (Aleksandr Bykosvki), Sharaev (Artur Kozin), Bourmistrov (Beka Tculukidze), Milman (Evgeni Serzin) and Popov-Bielotchiski (Stanislav Tkachenko). One after the other they enter the platform that slantingly faces the audience on the stage of the Piccolo Teatro Strehler; it is approximately fifteen metres long and approximately five metres deep (stage design by Alexei Porai-Koshits). A plethora of shredded white plastic strips cover its surface. Bright light aflame, the draftees waddle on the tips of their toes, fumbling forward through the snowy landscape until they — and Bob’s your uncle — go down in a hole in the ground as if they were drowning. Drafted. Descent is the name of the first scene.

On the creation of heroes and swaggering

We find ourselves in the time between the 60s and 80s somewhere in the Soviet Union. Beyond the civilised world there’s a world of the military. It nourishes distinct expectations on the malleable material, the young, manly body with its most intimate desires and thoughts. Dressed in Red Army uniform the young men climb through the hatches back into the snow. Now it’s really getting started. Together with the recruits, we’re riding at a gallop through the basic military training: “Company, attention!”, “Stand at ease”, “Eyes steady” — they exercise everything, also how to ‘make’ a report. The instructors’ unintelligible barking orders on the barrack yards are alike everywhere around the world. The same goes for the harassment performed on rounds. The major (Pavel Gryaznov) cunningly wags a white handkerchief in front the eyes of the recruits. He has found a dust grain on the doorframe above the entrance. There will be repercussions.

The scene Physical Exercise leads to scandal. A flatulence interrupts the athletic showdown from a press-up contest to lifting weights. A brawl starts between the swaggers. In the end, Itskovitch, the contemplative nonathletic Jew, is threshed until he’s unconscious. And Lieutenant Shamtchiev (Stanislav Nikolskii) kicks everyone in the groin who can’t hold the declared position of attention: space between the forward section of the foot in an angle of 20˚, chest out, stomach in, arms bent, fingertips at the hip on the trouser seam, and the greeting altogether! Greeting, walking, standing, sitting, sleeping… natural movements are socially rearranged and normed according to military procedure. Human material is made fit, fit to the service regulation that even Lieutenant Shamtchiev has to check every now and again, much to the laughter of the audience.

Material deficiency or adaptive difficulties?

The first attempt of a Moscow company failed to already stage the six-part story of The Construction Battalion by Sergei Kaledin in 1989 in the theatre of the Soviet Army in Moscow. Throughout the union, officers conferred and decided that The Construction Battalion is backstabbing the Red Army. A public power struggle between the military censorship and the cultural sector preceded the publication. The story was planned for the October edition of the Moscow literature magazine Novy Mir in 1988. The General Directorate of the protection of State Secrets in the Press (Glavlit) did not want to give their assent for printing without the approval of the military censorship. The chief editor, who had previously already enforced manuscripts such as The Foundation Pit by the Andrei Platonov, who had been prohibited for almost 60 years, received a rejection on the grounds of Kaledin’s story demonstrating an extraordinarily low political and moral standard of the relatives of a unit of troops of the Soviet Army. Kaledin is taking the risk himself and begins defending the text across the censorship authorities until its publication in April 1989. Prior to this, reviews are published in the Komsomolka, “there’s nothing worse than barrack yard collectivism of lawless people”, and in the Moskovski novosti “Glasnost isn’t enough — we also need a sense of hearing.” Julian Panitsh read Kaledin’s text on the Radio Svoboda; the latter was surprised that no one came to get him.

Times had changed. Lev Dodin and his troupe had nothing to do with the Moscow controversy, and rehearsed, undisturbed by censoring, for a year until the opening night on 11 July 1990. A class of his acting and directing students at the Leningrad  (Saint Petersburg) University of Theatre, that Dodin has been teaching at since 1967 and where he now chairs the department of stage direction , used Kaledin’s story as a starting point, but mostly used their own experiences as a basis for their performance which they solidified in 19 improvisations, putting the issue on the map. Taking it as a leitmotif, the hole in the ground serves as a latrine that the gypsy Vlad and the Jew Itskovitch shovel faeces in, while the ‘hero’, Kostya, transports the faeces away in a wheelbarrow. On stage Vlad and Itskovitch wear their caps like a food bowl underneath their lower jaw. Matchboxes containing faecal specimen of the recruits fly from these pitfalls in the scene War is War. The filthy curses and the soldiers’ speak of Kaledin’s story influence the dialogues. Everything is relentlessly brought up, from alcohol abuse to deaths in military manoeuvres to the movement of discharge contenders that distinguishes recruits according to term of service into ‘dashers’, ‘badgers’ and ‘grandpas’, and includes the personality-despising duty of ‘dashers’ and ‘grandpas’.

Gaudeamus, directed by Lev Dodin. Maly Drama Theatre, Saint-Petersburg. Photo © Viktor Vassiliev
Gaudeamus, directed by Lev Dodin. Maly Drama Theatre, Saint-Petersburg. Photo © Viktor Vassiliev

Happy Fracking

In a conversation with the Italian theatre critic Luca Doninelli about Theatre and Freedom Lev Dodin, when asked about the human soul, responded, “The human memory tends to erase tragic memories. Our human memory does away with uncomfortable memories and uncomfortable thoughts and tries to eradicate the pain. And one of the most important qualities of theatre is to identify this pain, to interpret it, and to talk about it.” — The son of a geologist, born in 1944 in Siberia, has proven this three-part working method in numerous productions at the Maly Theatre in Saint Petersburg, amongst which The House and Brothers and Sisters based on Fyodor Abramov, Demons by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Chevengur by Andrei Platonov, Stars in the Morning Sky by Alexander Galin or Life and Fate by Wassily Grossman. The basic conflicts of the Papal State are envisioned in these plays by Stalinism force collectivising the dream of the new human or the Soviet Civilisation (Andrei Sinyavsky) starting in the mid-20s.

This construction is cheered. This construction is cursed. The cheering is faced towards victory. The paid price is cursed. Dodin’s interpretation of the pain of young people in Gaudeamus resembles fracking, through which gases in low-lying rock layers are released. These gases are the dreams, the yearnings, the wishes and hopes of young bodies. This Let’s be happy! gives a premonition of unused sources of youthful zest for action: the civil side is the convincing performance by full-of-life acting graduates. The military side is the ironically funny exaggeration of the going-to-waste soul in every day life of young recruits in basic military training. Both sides of the same coin clank together with a cheer when Dodin gives this Stalinist construction a surreal chemical cocktail that comes up with a visual and acoustic colourfulness of poetry, opening up rooms for association across the memory of the ‘Russian Soul’ and literature.

There’s the big hang-out-the-laundry babushka (Mariya Nikiforova), who becomes the sexual adventure for the recruit Babai. At the same time, she’s also the lieutenant’s wife and represents Mother Russia. Whoever gets involved with her will be loved to death and left on the ground like Babai. She’s the character of the reaper that force collectivises Wostchew in Platonov’s The Construction Pit who commands death and donates food. She’s an invisible power that unexpectedly dives into fellow human beings. This power lets Itskovitch cover Kostya’s mouth when the latter drunkenly brags about going to America and screams, “America, I love you!” — this Kostya, who’s only dressed in briefs, whose athletic body makes him look remarkably like a Soviet hero’s memorial, when with a craving chest voice full of yearning he’s dictating his love letter to Tatiana (Danna Abyzova) — who’s looking for pleasure in the casern to the Beatles’ song Girl — to Vlad who’s standing in the cesspit up to his belly button.

First Love wasn’t missing either. There’s a girl (Daria Rumiantseva) standing at a lake, washing her hair. The man who sees her doesn’t stay alone for long. The other recruits immediately accompany his imagined wedding night with her with a dance. In another scene there’s a piano swinging in the heights of the stage area on which the couple Bogdan and Ludmila (Ekaterina Kleopina) play the beginning bars of Mozart’s symphony in G minor as a sign of love with their toes. It’s this far-away certainty that these projections would express this unrequited desire that let us enjoy folk song qualities with the grossed adaptation of the US song One way ticket to the blues (Neil Sedaka) in a de-jazzed Russian version Blue Song („Синий-синий иней лёг на провода…“), and lets our heart wallow in nostalgic but also blurred memories.

The source of the “Russian Soul” with Dodin is a peculiar symbiosis of nature experience, fertility mysticism and keen judgement. In search of the truth, he invites the audience as well as the actors to follow the simultaneous processing of different rationalities. The thus parallel existing competition of sacralities creates consistently new breaks that make you laugh or give you food for thought; when Ludmila, Tatiana, the girl at the lake, or the lady (Arina von Ribben) dance ballet on the tips of their toes in their nightgown around the latrines, but then sit on the ground in their cotton jackets, smoking, singing about the beauty of the body, using words from the church Slavic with which they direct their voices from a perspective of creation to us. Maybe this is the divine moment of the evening.

Theatre — a memorial site

An essential element of Dodin’s rehearsal process is the physical visit to the original locations. After the table reading of Grossman’s novel Life and Fate, the troupe travelled to a Stalinist GULAG and Auschwitz-Birkenau, where they stayed for a few nights. Rehearsals for the Abramov-Trilogy lead the troupe into the village Pekashino. This was repeated with younger ensemble members so that the thread between the generations wouldn’t rip. In the conversation with Doninelli, Dodin points out that theatre expresses the real meaning of life. No human existence can exist without the exchange of emotions. Interpersonal relationship only makes sense when seen in relation to our behaviour. Artists can share the search for truth here much better than can politicians or historians.

When everyone joins into the eponymic students’ song Gaudeamus igitiur… in the last scene, Academy, the tie between the first acting generation and the post-Soviet graduation class is ritually renewed 25 years after the world premiere. In this renewed production, which had its opening night at the Maly Theatre on 16 September 2014, only Mariya Nikiforova is still on board. Next to acting techniques that Dodin imparts in the tradition of the artist theatre based on Stanislavski’s and Meyerhold’s methods, the young actors penetrate the world of the basic military training in the Stalinist construction that brought pain to their predecessors. Now, it is them who keep Dodin’s interpretation alive and who talk about this pain. It is them who, 25 years after Glasnost and Perestroika, still transmit that the pantheon of the hero’s memorial doesn’t fit into the pre-cut stencils of the service regulations and doesn’t at all go with the well of adolescent curiosity, and that no nostalgia can cover up the true adaptive difficulties, even if the intonated music — civil or military — devoid of any kind of ideas contains a cheering promise, and throws the body into clanking excitement, which is more topical than ever, not just in Russia.

This is what distinguishes recollection and memory. Dodin’s theatre, which has its home in the Small Drama Theatre (MDT) in Saint Petersburg founded in 1944, has cultural techniques ready that can always revive earlier experiences and once acquired knowledge. This makes the works of the repertoire of this theatre ambassadors of those cultures whose peoples have suffered true hardship. Lev Dodin also imparts these cultural techniques in his masterclass that founded the ISO theatre of the Union des Théâtres de l’Europe (UTE), whose President of Honour is Dodin and whose founding member is the Maly Theatre. Lev Dodin is the patron of the Decentralized Academy. He was awarded numerous prizes, amongst which the Golden Mask, the Lawrence Olivier Award, the Russian Presidential Award and the European Theatre Prize for his lifetime achievement.


Published on 24 February 2016 (Article originally written in German)