Hamish MacDonald reports from a return visit to Mariafest in Ukriane
OCTOBER 2012 saw the ninth annual Mariafest monologue festival at the Ivan Franko theatre in the Ukranian capital of Kiev.
MARIAFEST has been established as a significant event in Ukraine’s cultural calendar, honouring the country’s renowned actress Maria Zankovetska (1854-1934) and offering performances by some of the finest theatrical talent from Eastern Europe.
The festival is ably and energetically directed by Lara Kadyrova, laureate of the National Schevchenko Prize and People’s Artist of Ukraine. During the festival there is an international conference embracing and uniting the worlds of literature and theatre, presided over by Dmytro Drozdoyvski, deputy editor of Vsesvit magazine (‘The Universe’).
Established in 1925, Vsesvit is Ukraine’s leading literary journal which through its features and translations over ten decades – across Soviet and post-Soviet eras – has maintained a vital connection between the country’s literature and that of the wider world.
Dogstar Theatre Company had already forged its own links with Ukraine in 2007 when the company first travelled to the Ternopil Theatre Festival and L’viv Youth Theatre to perform its production of Seven Ages. The company returned in 2010 with Matthew Zajac’s The Tailor of Inverness – a story embracing much of western Ukraine and eastern Poland’s troubled modern history – and was performed at the Golden Lion Theatre Festival in L’viv, at Lutsk, and at the Kyiv Mohyla University.
The Tailor of Inverness was subsequently translated into Ukranian to feature in Vsesvit magazine. The company was invited to Mariafest 2010 when I travelled to Kiev to attend the festival and to present a paper ‘The International Languange of Theatre’ to the international Mariafest conference – reflecting upon the universal appeal of theatre and upon Dogstar’s own experience as an international touring company.
When the opportunity arose to attend Mariafest 2012 I was only too happy to accept, and to be able to contribute to the conference by presenting a paper in celebration of the bicentenary of one the world’s foremost literary figures, Charles Dickens. Whether through literature, film or TV adaptation, the work of Dickens has been appreciated and loved by every generation since he first began serialising stories and novels for the popular press more than a hundred and seventy years ago. How’s that for literary longevity?
In this age of the banking crisis, global debt and the profound gap in personal wealth that has been widening at an alarming rate since 1980 (recently exemplified by BBC 4’s Park Avenue – Money, Power and the Dream), perhaps it is no surprise that Dickens’ stories, often embracing personal struggle, suffering and the acute social maliase caused by societal divides should read as powerfully today as they did in the nineteenth century.
Kiev is a truly beautiful city. It appears not as one city but two, the ancient historical heart on the rising hills, crowned by golden domed churches, its parks and terraces hanging high over the River Dnieper with its island hydro-parks and resorts. Beyond the green islands with their trailing willow trees, over on the flat side of the river a monolithic concrete outline reaches into the sky, houses, factories, offices, power stations, the functional proletarian communities of the Soviet days, appearing at first sight from the older city like some magnified Springburn or Wester Hailes, the two communities joined by strips of concrete that rise on pillars over water and land, by arched and cantilevered bridges.
The whole city is connected by the Metro, going out into the open air of the modern precincts and deep under the hills of the ancient. In the district of Darnytsya concrete underpasses are filled with the colour of flower-sellers, traditional accordion music goes out from the buskers, with its shops and retaurants and hotels it all seems somehow more integrated, less dysfunctional, not as threatening or bleak as many of the post-war schemelands of Scotland. But this of course is only one small part of the city and it may well be a different story elsewhere.
By night buskers promenade through the train carriages, in Khreschaty Park it is not unusual to see some religious procession going past, whispering in prayer with an ikon held to the fore, no doubt a common sight to the ordinary passer-by but appearing to the stranger as it emerges from under the shade of the trees as if out of some thickly oiled picture of Old Russia.
Mariafest offers two molologue perfromances per day in the smaller 200-seat auditorium at the Ivan Franko Theatre. The first performance I watched was the Moscow Armenian Theatre’s dynamic re-telling of Jean Cocteau’s The Human Voice, made universally famous by Ted Kotcheff’s 1966 film starring Ingrid Bergman, featuring only the actress in her appartment, the opening scene revealing some torn-up photographs and a telephone.
Moscow Armenian Theatre’s production was designed and directed by Slava Stepanyan. Actress Zita Badalyan’s journey of breakdown and despair was told with impassioned and reflective effect, moving between bouts of grief and rage to the safer haven of recollections of better times with her estranged lover, emblemized by a silent actor recalling her to memory through an upheld mirror. The foreground featured a male figure fashioned out of thin copper wire, a substanceless form remaining only in outline as the increasingly frenetic woman finds her life spiralling out of control – and answering to a dead telephone line.
Following this matinee a powerful evening performance was given by veteran Polish Actor Boguslaw Kierc of My Corpse, an epic dream of life, love and death viewed from behind the curtain of mortality, written and directed by Boguslaw Kierc from the lines of Poland’s greatest Romantic nationalist poet Adam Mickiewicz, with only a stark light, a walking stick and a glass of water between actor and audience. Standing mostly stalk-still for the duration of the performance, Kierc held the theatre spellbound with the sheer power of language and facial expression alone, climaxing in the shattering of the water-glass gripped between trembling hands.
The following day’s matinee found Belorussian actress Olena Dudych give a sensitive and heartfelt delivery of the story of Edith Piaf in The Sparrow Who Growls, followed that evening by Laryssa Kadyrova’s tribute to the woman in whose name the festival was founded, Maria Zankovetska. When Two Are Separated visits the famous Ukranian actresses’ life from the point of estrangement from her second husband, the actor Nikolai Sadovsky whom she met in an army barracks in the Principality of Moldavia during her first husband’s military service and who persuaded her to venture to a new life in the theatrical profession.
Maria Zankovetska became a renowned actress in Ukraine, in Russia and throughout Europe. Her story reads like something from the pages of an epic classical novel and Laryssa Kadyrova’s amazing and elegant performance resurrects not only the story but the spirit of a great Ukranian artist.
During Mariafest a day is given over to the aforementioned International Conference held in the Ivan Franko Theatre, which focused this year not only on Dickens but on Ukraine’s great dramatist of the modernist era, Les Kurbas, founder of the legendary Theatre Nights in Ternopil and the daring experimentalist who worked from his studio in Kiev and would go on to present his ground-breaking drama in the Berezil and Kharkiv theatres.
Despite having a background in socialist idealism and revolutionary Bolshevism, in the late 20’s Kurbas’s work came under the increasingly watchful scrutiny of Soviet authoritarianism, with his plays eventually reduced to charges of ‘subversive organisation’ and ‘bourgeoise nationalism’. Kurbas was pronounced unfit for developing Soviet art and utlimately arrested, his life ended by execution in Sandarmokh in 1937 when a number of Ukranian intellectuals were shot under Stalin’s orders in commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the October Revolution.
The conference reflected upon the legacy of Kurbas’ work and its continuing importance, upon the life and work of Dickens in the novel and in cinema, and more broadly upon the social and political challenges faced by the performing arts in the age of globalised mass consumption and ever-changing media and audience needs.
Evridika featured a piece of physical theatre from Russia, performed by Yana Likhotina, moving from ground level to the upper air on perilously balanced step-ladders, between a theoretical heaven and hell. Remaining firmly in a dark place Anna Slubik’s performance of Zhan Rasin’s Fedra opened with unnerving discordance and foreboding. With the Polish actress appearing in deathly pale make-up the story of adulterous and incestuous betrayal was illustrated at times by the use of two hand-held effigies in a production that was unrelenting in its tearing open of the tortured soul of its protagonist.
The day was rounded off by a superb performance of Ticket to Heaven by Milka Zimkova from Bratislava, Slovakia. It can be something of a challenge to take in such a concentration of plays in any situation let alone in a range of Eastern European languages. When the spoken language is scarcely understood this requires another kind of engagement altogether, concentrating instead on rhythm, imagery and ultimately upon the connection between actor and audience.
Not to worry – although I’d loved to have got the jokes in Ticket To Heaven that had the audience roaring out loud at times, in every nuance and expression Milka Zimkova’s performance might as easily have been by some Scottish Everywumman, a Glasgow wifie or Torry quinie sitting down at the kitchen table, sharing innermost secrets and reflecting upon the faded love of extended matrimonial life. Judging by what was happening onstage and by the audience reaction this was clearly a fine piece of intimate theatre, full of warmth and observation and with the common touch that would have worked in any language.
Once again Mariafest invited us on an excursion to the beautiful sights of Kiev, to Lavra with its incredible reconstruction of monasteries and bell-towers that fell to the ravages of World War Two, dwarfed under the monstrous Soviet Victory monument on the adjacent hill, the hollow metallic statue holding up her sword and shield and affectionately known – or so I’ve been told – as ‘Old Tin Tits’.
To St. Michael’s gold-domed cathedral and the statue of Cossack warrior Bodhan Khmelnitsky ascending on his horse, his mace pointing in symbolic gesture back in the direction of Moscow. To the house of Maria Zankovetska who is the reason we are here, a careful reconstruction of the actresses’ home that had fallen victim to fire and then to demolition before being reopened in 1989, now a dedicated museum housing photographs, playbills and theatrical costumes that tell the story of her life.
The final performance I was to take in was Richard After Richard performed by Lidia Danylchuk, directed by Iryna Volystka, a cabaret style grotesquerie in which Richard III’s adversaries are played by – a sack of cabbages – each systematically given the chop in manic rhythmic fashion by a range of dangerous looking kitchen knives held magnetically in the form of a shining heraldic shield before their determinidely villainous purpose is revealed.
Lidia Danylchusk’s dissecting of the cabbages was truly unique – circling around the table, sending up a fountain-like spray of green as the knives drummed into the flesh of the vegetables, the floor now a seething organic mess of homicide and destruction.
You’ve probably twigged by now that Mariafest ventures to combine the traditional with the less conventional. So this was it for Mariafest 2012, the festival celebrates the theatrical form of the monologue and we hope to be able to respond to the invitation to return next year to the tenth anniversary of Mariafest with The Tailor of Inverness. Thank you once again to Laryssa, to Iryna and to Dmytro and to all those involved at Mariafest, to Vsesvit and the Maria Zankovetska House, and to the supporting institutions of Mariafest.
Mariafest is held with the support of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism in Ukraine, the National Academic Theatre of Ivan Franko and the International (Ukraine) charitable foundation of the International Institute of Theatre. The conference is supported by the Taras Schevchenko Institute of Literature of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine.
Hamish’s travel to Ukraine was supported by Creative Scotland’s International and Conferences Investment Programme.
© Hamish MacDonald, 2012