- Shakespeare by Elçin
Although Azerbaijan was one of the first Muslim-majority nations to present theatre and opera in the Western style, and now has a strong theatrical tradition in this style going back almost a century and a half, Azerbaijani plays and dramatists remain almost totally unknown in the United States and much of [End Page 458] Europe. They are more common in the repertoire of nearby Turkey, however, and I was fortunate enough to see there a recent Azerbaijani work with very strong Western echoes. Elçin’s Shakespeare was first presented in an elegant new theatre in Baku in 2007 and revived seven years later in the Municipal Theatre of Istanbul. The dramatist, whose full name is Elçin Ilyas Oglu Afandiyev, is generally known by the single name Elçin and is one of the best-known writers in his country; he is also its deputy prime minister. After enjoying great success in novels and cinema, Elçin turned to the theatre. Shakespeare is his tenth play.
The play echoes the Western repertoire in several ways, and not only in the evocation of its greatest dramatist. Like Marat/Sade, it takes place in a rather theatricalized mental hospital and, like Peter Schaffer’s Equus, features a narrator/psychiatrist (Ertuğrul Postoğlu) who helps others, but feels a kind of existential emptiness within himself. As is often the case in such works, the “crazy” inmates of the hospital possess insights denied to the learned doctor and his staff. The central inmate (played by the leading Azerbaijani actress Selma Kutluğ) believes she is Sarah Bernhardt, who, in turn, believes that Shakespeare in general, and Romeo and Juliet in particular, elevate humanity to a new level of happiness and harmony. The only inmate sympathetic to her vision is Slash 13 (Murat Kuner), even though theatre does not exist on the planet Vanderprandur from which he claims to come. He explains to the doctor that on his planet everyone tells the truth, so theatre is not necessary to express true feelings. Nevertheless, he feels envy for the experience that Sarah champions and demonstrates. Much less impressed is an inmate who fancies himself Josef Stalin (Senzai Aydin) and is primarily concerned with insisting that history has made him appear far worse than he actually was. Among the other, less central inmates are a schizophrenic (Acts Atemgüe) who fancies herself both a husband and wife, and another purported space traveler, this one from Venus.
Sarah’s campaign meets with little success until Slash 13 agrees to perform a love scene from Shakespeare’s play to demonstrate to the others what the playwright offers. In the Turkish production, they performed the scene in strong overhead lighting that reduced the watchers to dim silhouettes surrounding the action. Their performance of the scene was powerful and deeply moving, not only for the little audience onstage, but for the larger real audience assembled in the theatre. Sarah clearly makes her point about the emotional power of theatre, and the audience laughs and applauds in support; even the crusty Stalin proclaims, “this is better than Marx.”
Not long after this key scene, the production offered an even more spectacular stage effect. Somewhat in the manner of the famous helicopter in Miss Saigon, an enormous spaceship filled the area above the stage, bathing all in dazzling light. It is the colleagues of Slash 13, come to take him back home. Before he leaves, however, he urges all those left behind to heed the lessons of Shakespeare that Sarah has tried to impart to them. Whether their lives have, in fact, been altered we do not learn, but it is clear that the psychiatrist, who was not present for the extraterrestrial visit or for the Shakespearian scene, has not been able to profit from either, apparently considering the first a mass hallucination, and the second a foolish game played by the inmates. He ends the play alone in his office, still searching for the mental comfort that so closely passed him by.
Aside from excellent performances, the...