- Shakespeare in Russia: King Lear
A Russian critic once observed that Russians treat Shakespeare as their own classic and stage him accordingly. It is therefore not surprising that any given month one can find a dozen Shakespearean productions in St. Petersburg and at least twice as many in Moscow. This number is greater than all Chekhov productions (including all short-story adaptations) combined, with Ostrovskiy coming in a distant third. Back when the population of the Soviet Union was approximately equal to that of the English-speaking world, Soviet cultural propaganda was fond of citing a statistic according to which more copies of Shakespeare were bought by Soviet readers than by their capitalist counterparts. A more palpable achievement in the process of making Shakespeare Russian is the impressive array of film adaptations: at least three-quarters of the plays have been turned into films, which are still shown with some regularity on state television. Most theatrical productions in Russia also exist within the state-funded theatre system, in which the lifespan of a given production may be determined by various factors other than its artistic merits or its popularity with the audiences. A production can be part of a theatre's repertory and exist in relative obscurity for years, so that actors (who are usually permanently affiliated with a particular theatre) can keep their jobs, and so that the cultural and educational mission of a given theatre (as it is perceived by its director or the ministry of culture) is carried out, with box-office deficits covered by federal aid. Amidst the mediocrity that such a system tends to foster, there are several theatres whose talented management and actors have turned them into successful and important institutions. Of the latter, Leo Dodin's Theatre of Europe in St. Petersburg is a prime example.
For Russians, who have grown to think that real theatre is director's theatre, Theatre of Europe is an auteur company at its purest. It is the most respected theatre in St. Petersburg, something of the city's cultural icon. Dodin's company is the only one that performs widely abroad and [End Page 87] participates in prominent theatrical festivals. With a cast consisting mostly of several generations of Dodin's own drama students, Theatre of Europe usually comes out with one, and very occasionally two, premiere productions each year, with each production then given on a repertory basis once or twice a month for many years. The greatest productions, such as Brothers and Sisters, adapted from the novel by Fyodor Abramov, with the original cast almost entirely preserved, have been playing to packed houses for two decades. Therefore Dodin's King Lear, which has been in the making for almost two years—a luxury that is probably affordable only in Russia's state-funded theatre system—was the most anticipated event of the 2006 season. The intrigue was doubled, since for Dodin, mostly known for his interpretations of Russian classics, it was the first foray into Shakespeare. (The only other Shakespearean production that Theatre of Europe has in its repertory is the sublimely powerful Winter's Tale directed by Declan Donellan, head of the London-based Cheek-by-Jowl company).
Dodin's greatness as well as his notoriety is often seen in what Russian critics call "going beyond the interpretation"—not merely translating from the page to the stage but creating a grand vision in which the text, even when preserved in its entirety, is always secondary to directorial will. Dodin's Lear, sometimes uneven and sometimes no more than a variation on Shakespeare's play, was every inch a statement of total director's theatre. It started in a manner uncharacteristic of Dodin, who usually favors realism and seldom engages in interactive metadramatics: Lear, wearing a nightgown and woolen socks, disheveled and hung-over, slowly made his way to the stage through the orchestra, making eye contact and winking at the members of the audience. Petr Semak, the company's forty-five-year-old leading man, despite much grey in his beard and long hair (no wigs or false...