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“Come, Let’s Away to Prison”: Local and Global Myths, and “Political Shakespeare” in Twenty-First-Century Russia

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Local and Global Myths in Shakespearean Performance

Part of the book series: Reproducing Shakespeare ((RESH))

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The chapter examines “political Shakespeare” as a local myth that became global. The myth supports a collective narrative about oppressed cultures using Aesopian strategies in the arts to challenge censorship. In the twentieth century, “political Shakespeare” in particular gave a unique identity to Shakespearean performances in Eastern Europe, thus crediting political dimension of Shakespeare’s texts with the ability to resist and fight communist control. A key problem with “political Shakespeare” myth, however, is that it stifles other readings of Shakespearean stagings in Eastern Europe. It also does not allow for problematizing what “the political” in theatre means, how it is achieved, and how often unsuccessful it is. The chapter tests this myth by analysing two modern Russian productions by Konstantin Bogomolov and Nikolai Kolyada.

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  1. 1.

    In 2008, Dirk Delabastita in his essay “Anthologies, Translations, and European Identities” introduced his “survey of worldwide Shakespeare across four centuries in a mere 200 hundred words” in the form of a diagram with 12 boxes charting all European contributions. For the purpose of this chapter, I am interested only in box 11, where the role of Central and Eastern Europe emerges in the post-World War II era. Delabastita firmly places the nations of Central and Eastern Europe within the development of “Shakespeare allegorized,” characterized by the tension of “Communist internationalism vs. anti-Communist nationalisms” (Delabastita et al. 2008, 348–349). After analysing existing research, he inscribes Central and Eastern European Shakespeare within a political paradigm, in which, in his view, Shakespeare oscillated between the assertion and resistance of Communist ideology.

  2. 2.

    A Russian actor, Wasiliy Samoilov travelled to Russian-controlled Poland-Lithuania Commonwealth to see Macbeth in 1850s (no precise date available) and left a laudatory account of the performance of the Polish ensemble in Vilnius . Macbeth was finally staged for the first time in Russia in 1861 (Komorowski 2011, 132).

  3. 3.

    Daniel S. Gerould writes that Mikhoels proclaimed that rejecting tradition was “the only way of reading the tragedy that could make it sound contemporary”; in Solomon Mikhoels, Essay, Speeches, and Articles (Mikhoels 1960, 119).

  4. 4.

    Also, in The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Stage there is a chapter “Shakespeare on Political Stage” which has a section entitled “Political Shakespeare in Eastern Europe” (Stanton and Wells 2002, 223–225).

  5. 5.

    Jan Kott’s Shakespeare Our Contemporary was published first in French in 1962, then in English in 1964 and in Polish in 1965. The book was based on an earlier collection of essays by Jan Kott entitled Szkice szekspirowskie (Shakespearean Sketches) which was published in Poland in 1961. It is interesting to note that Grigori Kozintsev also published a book, similarly titled in 1962 in Russian (which translates as Our Contemporary, William Shakespeare).

  6. 6.

    Please note Arabic translation of Kott’s book in Litvin (2011, 30).

  7. 7.

    Contemporariness of Shakespeare as a universal reading of Shakespearean works was already questioned by Kott himself in the 1980s. After seeing Hamlet in Dubrovnik in modern costume in a Renaissance castle, he stated that “Shakespeare could have been our contemporary twenty five years ago, whereas he is not so much a contemporary today” (Stříbrný 2000, 106).

  8. 8.

    Warlikowski says: “However Kott is not a fool-proof and infallible guide, doors have been broken down, today we are not able to get too much out of his work” (Gruszczyński 2007, 110–111).

  9. 9.

    According to Warlikowski, “Long time ago one could be fascinated by this (Kott’s) Marxist view of history but today these are only simplifications. And in theatre, today’s theatre especially, we should not simplify anything” (Gruszczyński 2007, 133).

  10. 10.

    Ernst Bloch, “Discussing Expressionism”; Georg Lukacs, “Realism in the Balance.” The two essays were first published in 1938 in Das Wort.

  11. 11.

    For a Polish example, see “No ‘Happy Wrecks’ – Pessimism and Suffering in Krzysztof Warlikowski’s Adaptation of The Tempest by William Shakespeare” (Sakowska 2011a, b).

  12. 12.

    I watched both performances at the International Shakespeare Festival in Gdańsk. I saw Kolyada’s King Lear in 2011 (the premiere in Russia took place on 19 May 2008) and Bogomolov’s adaptation of the play in the 2012 edition of the festival (the premiere in Russia took place on 23 September 2011).

  13. 13.

    Blair A. Ruble reports that the movement possesses “neo-naturalistic aesthetic, with unprecedented prominence given to representations of violence,” whereas its “main thematic preoccupation is the deep crisis of identity that has characterized post-Soviet society” (Ruble 2011). For more about New Drama movement, see Maksim Hanukai, “No More Drama: ‘Who in Russia lives well?’” (Hanukai 2015).

  14. 14.

    Paul Ricoeur refers here to the work of Jean-Marc Ferry, Ferry, J.-M., Les Puissances de l’Expérience, I & II. Paris: Le Cerf, 1991 (Ricoueur 2005, 140).

  15. 15.

    This view originates from Internarrative Identity by Ajit K. Maan (1999). She proposes that we have to deal with competing “truths” within our lives and so we cannot describe life events from only one perspective. She builds on Ricoeur’s Narrative Identity Theory. See page XI of the Preface (Maan 1999).

  16. 16.

    Varlam Shalamov (1907–1982) was a famous Russian writer and philosopher. From 1920s to 1950s he was imprisoned in Stalin’s gulags.

  17. 17.

    Samuil Marshak was also a translator of Shakespeare’s works. His translation of Shakespeare’s Sonnet IV was used in Bogomolov’s performance.

  18. 18.

    Russian directors rarely rewrite Shakespeare’s plays, but Bogomolov is by no means the first to have done it in the recent years. One notable revision was done by Dimitrij Krymov in Moscow Drama School Theatre. Entitled Three Sisters, his adaptation was a mash-up of King Lear, Love’s Labour Lost, and Sonnets. It was a moving family story about a father who is suffering from a mental illness. It was shown to great acclaim at Gdańsk Shakespeare Festival in 2005.

  19. 19.

    Semyon Mikhailovich Budyonny (1883–1973) was a Russian military hero and a marshal of Soviet forces during World War II, until 1941. In his last years he was the president of Mongolian-Soviet Society. The actress playing Albany is made up to look Asian.

  20. 20.

    Georgy Maksimilianovich Malenkov (1901–1988) was one of the closest supporters of Stalin. He was of Macedonian descent. He organized mass persecutions during Stalin’s rule including the infamous “Leningrad Affair.”

  21. 21.

    Samuil Yakovlevich Marshak (1887–1964) was a celebrated Soviet writer, mostly known for his poetry for children. He was of Jewish descent. He supported dissenting Russian writers.

  22. 22.

    He set up his Kolyada Theatre in Yekaterinurg in 2001. It is one of the first privately owned and managed theatres in Russia that survived the bleak economic situation that the arts are in. In 2003 he staged his first Shakespearean adaptation , Romeo and Juliet. The fate of the theatre company was unsure for a long time. They kept being moved from one decrepit location to another, and when in 2006 the building he used was to be taken away, his ensemble went on a hunger strike. Kolyada managed to secure another building, and in 2007 staged Hamlet. But Kolyada is also a victim of his own myth. When in 2012 he joined Putin’s presidential campaign, it was received as an act of treason by many artists and the local community. Offensive graffiti appeared all over the walls of his theatre’s building. What transpired later is that Kolyada was awarded a very large grant by the government to acquire a new permanent building for his theatre. Kolyada’s theatre has 65 people to support financially, including 35 actors. Clearly his theatre is not a “temple” but a costly enterprise. See the article entitled “A Playwright for Putin” (Freedman 2012).

  23. 23.

    The August 2012 issue of Театр is fully devoted to theatre and politics in Russia. For example, Elena Levinskaya in her article “Without Aesopian Language” claims that Russian theatre never possessed political theatre in the sense of Berthold Brecht or Erwin Piscator because it was impossible for the theatre to ask any direct questions about the nation’s life.

  24. 24.

    One notable exception is Taganka theatre’s adaptation of Hamlet under the direction of Yuri Lyubimov with a celebrated poet and singer, Vladimir Vysotsky in the title role (the premiere took place on 29 November 1971). The current theatres in Russia that continue politically engaged work are Teatr.doc, Teatr “Etcetera” and recently opened Gogol Centre. They, however, rarely stage Shakespeare or not at all (Teatr.doc makes only verbatim productions). I would like to note that another problem with assessing “Political Shakespeare” in Russia is that some of the more important examples of this myth occurred in Soviet-controlled republics such as Ukraine and Georgia.

  25. 25.

    The metaphor of theatre as a “temple” has been present in many countries in Central Eastern Europe and came out at the time of the great theatre reforms instigated in Europe by Vsevolod Meyerhold, Adolphe Appia, Edward Gordon Craig, Konstantin Stanislavsky, Leon Schiller, and others. In Russia the phrase was used by Fyodor Sologub in his article “Theatre–Temple” in Theatre and Art, 1917, no 3, pages 50–52.

  26. 26.

    Certainly, a special issue of Theater (2006, Volume 36, Number 1, Dukes University) devoted entirely to Russian theatre in the twenty-first century did not elaborate on any new developments in Shakespearean adaptation or the current role of Shakespeare’s drama in Russian culture.

  27. 27.

    For more on other recent developments in censorship in Russian arts, see Emiilia Dementsova, “What Is the Relationship between the Spectator, Theatre, and the State?” (2017).


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Sakowska, A. (2018). “Come, Let’s Away to Prison”: Local and Global Myths, and “Political Shakespeare” in Twenty-First-Century Russia. In: Mancewicz, A., Joubin, A. (eds) Local and Global Myths in Shakespearean Performance. Reproducing Shakespeare. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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