Politicians should go to the theatre
“Today, the theatre is a territory of absolute freedom,” said 54-year-old Yuri GRYMOV, famous Russian theatre and film director and the artistic director of the Modern Theatre, in an interview with Sergo Kukhianidze, Editor-in-Chief of Capital Ideas.
Mr. Grymov, your affinity for Russian classics is well known. In the beginning of December, you’re getting ready to present your new work – the play “War and Peace” based on Tolstoy, which you’ve been working on for four years. In light of this, I have to share some news with you. The popular US series “Cosy Classics,” which prints classics for children, recently published another book – Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” which has… 12 words and 12 pictures. I think it’s not such a bad idea to introduce children to classical literature this way, right?
It’s all relative. If you follow the same logic, you can also scale down the Cheops Pyramid. I mean, why is it so big? It doesn’t fit on my smartphone photo. (Smiles) Basically, I’m very skeptical about experiments like this. You can’t simplify everything and turn it into fun comic books. It’s another thing when there are abbreviations for movies or plays, where there are different rules, even a different language. You see, Tolstoy’s long text with a sprinkling of foreign words creates a certain mood. In my play “War and Peace,” I’m concerned with this atmosphere, not the plot. I’m more concerned with the Russian spirit, if you want to put it like that, which fills every page of the novel. On stage, you can convey this spirit if you pay attention to any trivial thing. This is why I’m studying all the details of that era, to fully immerse the audience into what’s happening. We made 423 costumed from the 19th century especially for this production.
The Russian spirit, you say? Just like the Russian soul, these are quite hackneyed concepts. For some people it’s Baba Yaga, for others it’s a balalaika and vodka with pelmeni…
I agree. But I think nobody has been able to convey the true Russian spirit, its strength, depth, and patriotism, like Tolstoy in “War and Peace.” It’s no wonder this book, whether you like it or not, is an icon of Russian literature. Why did this happen? It has to do with the war of 1812, which is described in the book, and undoubtedly with the genius of Leo Tolstoy himself, who was the true embodiment of the Russian spirit.
So, in your opinion, what are Russian people like?
A Russian person is definitely not a money grubber – money is not the most important thing. Usually, Russians will talk about anything else other than money. Remember the works of Anton Chekhov? During the toughest times, Russians will always think: we’ll get through it somehow. Russians also have a lot of doubt, and therefore are constantly growing. Look at how the entire banking structure has modernized in the past few years! We take cards almost everywhere, which you can’t even find in Paris. We also live in black-and-white. It’s hard not to see how everything in Moscow has become brighter, cleaner, more beautiful right? Before this, Luzhkov nearly turned the city into a hellhole: dirt, stands, billboards everywhere. But most Muscovites are still not happy. Why? Because it’s not enough for us, we’re maximalists, we have to take everything to the next level.
Do you think the West understands who Russian people are?
You know, I had a chance to work in Las Vegas in the early 90s, I was putting on a fashion show there. I’ll say right away that I don’t idealize Russians. But I was shocked by what Americans thought of our people – it was all primitive stereotypes. It’s easy to see why this happens. It’s easier for people, they don’t have to use their brains. Though to be fair there are other examples as well. The latest is the great TV show on HBO, “Chernobyl.” It’s a shame we weren’t the ones to make this great film. When I watched it, I understood that the “ha-ha idiot Russians” period is over, or at the very least is almost over. “Chernobyl” has incredibly realistic depictions of day-to-day life and atmosphere of the Soviet times. By the way, we still depict Americans in a comedic way when we make films about them. All of this is directly linked to how developed a society is.
The subject of West admirers and Slavophiles is one of the most important ones in “War and Peace.” I’m curious, which camp do you belong to?
At heart I am a West admirer from childhood. I was always into Western music, and art, and literature… But the older I get, the more I reconsider my attitude toward Russia, its history, its culture. It’s like Pierre Bezukhov in “War and Peace.” At first he is “Russian Pierre,” but by the end of the novel he is Pyotr Kirillovich. At age fourteen, if someone gave me a choice between our singer Muslim Magomaev or Pink Floyd, I would of course pick the British rock band. But now I understand not only the differences between Magomaev and Pink Floyd, I also understand that they are equal. It’s just that nobody explained how unique and talented Magomaev was to me when I was younger. The problem is, of course, my education. And not just mine. This is the problem of our whole society during the USSR, when everything was banned, when there was no choice, when everything seemed like a lie.
By the way, these are the real reasons we ended up losing the “Cold War.” It’s also how we lost the first few years after the beginning of perestroika. The West started to make Russia insecure in many different respects. They even told us, for example, that we didn’t know how to make films. And where do they know how to make them? In Hollywood, of course! We agreed, and, as a result, lost the cinema field. Look at the films that we shoot today about the war. This is not serious. The Hollywood model does not fit our traditions of military filmmaking. The only area we never felt insecure about is theatre. There are no equivalents when it comes to our theatre schools. Many Hollywood stars, including Marilyn Monroe and Marlon Brando, are students of Mikhail Chekhov, who created his acting school there and was incredibly famous. We have a play about this called “Is it OK that I’m Chekhov?”. Read through the notes of our wonderful director Mikhail Kalatozov, who was shocked when a lot of wealthy and influential actors in America constantly told him: “We dream of working with Russian actors one day.” Now, all of our actors dream of working with Tom Cruz. I don’t mean to downplay Cruz’s talent, but this is a different level. Can Cruz compete with Innokenty Smoktunovksy, or Brad Pitt with Yevgeny Yevstigneyev? So I am deeply convinced that any Russian theatre today is a spiritual bomb shelter.
What does this mean?
That people who come to the theatre end up closed off in a space that is safe from the noise of day-to-day life, which attacks us from sunrise until sundown. Once they are inside the theatre, the audience doesn’t waste any time. For two to three hours, they are immersed in the depths of the human soul, experience a host of feelings, and come out of the theatre renewed, cleansed. This is at a time when 95 percent of movies, both American and Russian, are a waste of time, since most of them are action films, thrillers, or primitive comedies. Theatre life in Moscow is in full swing. Moscow is considered the world capital of theatre today. Just think about it – there are 220 theatres in the city right now!
How is your Modern Theatre different from everyone else?
First, it’s the repertoire. I have plays that no other theatre in Moscow has. For example, Huxley’s “Brave New World” or “Nirvana,” about the tragic fate of Kurt Cobain. Finally, I did the Shakespeare play “Julius Caesar,” which was banned in Russia for over a hundred years. It’s about politics: Caesar goes to the elections for the fourth time. And I ran this play during yet another Russian presidential election.
And you didn’t go to jail…
As you can see, no. You know, when people tell me about censorship, this is what I have to say. I have been the director of Modern Theatre for three years and I’m on the Artistic Directors Council of Moscow, and not once has anyone tried to tell me I’m not allowed to show something, not at the Moscow Department of Culture, not during meetings with the mayor.
So you’ve never had to get your repertoire approved by the government?
Never. Moreover, none of my colleagues have ever even discreetly mentioned to me that they weren’t allowed to do something. There are no cases like this. Believe me, if we had them, they would be talked about. So today, the theatre is a territory of absolute freedom. Which is not something you can say about television, which is completely controlled by the government since it’s a powerful tool of influence, or about film, where there is financial censorship.
Let’s change the record. When I was in London, I once visited the legendary St. Martins Theatre, where a play based on Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap” has been running since the 70s. I was surprised by one thing. The guests who didn’t finish the whiskey they got during the intermission took their glasses right back in to see the rest of the play…
Well, it’s a different culture. You can do that there, but not here. We even have a dress code. There is live music before the beginning of the play and during intermissions in the lobby, and we have an excellent buffet with an excellent selection of drinks and food. To be honest, I’m generally against people eating or drinking even in movie theatres. The smell of popcorn is sometimes unbearable!
Can culture bring people together?
I think culture is the only thing that can. Everybody understands the language of culture. If politicians understood it, there would be fewer conflicts in the world. I am sure that politicians need to read books, go to the theatre, to exhibitions… but not for the media coverage. They need to visit cultural events quietly, when their soul wants to. And if that never happens, then it’s a question for the voter: why would you want such a vapid politician?
What is a cultured person?
Someone who can empathize with others. You can’t help reacting to meanness, to cowardice. Saying “this isn’t my problem, goodbye” is not acceptable for a cultured person.