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Monday, 3 May 2010

A Look at Contemporary Russian Theatre by Anna Vislova

The fact that little of that much interest seems to be showing at the cinemas in the past week and not having any real desire to watch Mikhalkov's film a second time, I've been reading a little. One of the books that caught my eye was the book by theatre critic Anna Vislova on contemporary Russian theatre since the fall of the Soviet Union. An author of books on the legendary Soviet actor Andrey Mironov and on the Silver Age, she has recently published her take on more contemporary drama.

The position that she takes is that theatre in contemporary Russia has taken a wrong turning and instead of returning to a modernist path in which theatre could be a force looking at contemporary society, it has become trapped in a neoliberal worldview and has simply allowed itself to be trapped in a vicious circle of post-modernist irony and black humour. Her relationship to Soviet theatre is not uncritical and her book is not a nostalgic look at what was but a hard look at the wasted opportunities of the possibilities that theatre could have been used for in a free and more democratic space. Vislova notes some of the aspects of how theatre has failed its role in contemporary Russia by being the cynical voice of the moneyed elite. Her complaints include those of it relying too much on 'styob' and completely losing any tragic voice (relying instead on a cynical black comedy), of simply echoing western trends and not forging theatre from its own strong traditions of Stanislavsky and Meyerhold. Meyerhold for her has been misunderstood by those trying to mimic his original view of the theatre.

Vislova's book is a powerfully argued and detailed exposition of trends in contemporary theatre and although it is polemical it gives a good account of many theatrical productions explaining why they fail in being a significant voice in intellectual life and playing a critical role in contemporary Russian society. The strong points of her book includes her description of the social context of theatre and although her positions emphasise the negative aspect of contemporary theatre her viewpoint never lapses either into rose-tinted nostalgia for the past or into facile criticism of contemporary trends.

Her account is one of the few which take a broad look at trends in contemporary Russian theatre and one can only hope for a similar book to be written on contemporary Russian cinema from a Russian viewpoint. One may argue that the situation in Russian cinema is not as black as Vislova suggests with regard to theatre but her overview of the recent two decades of cultural life has much to recommend it.

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