And my sorrow is bright...
[b]Listapad. Andersen was recently staged by the Art Director of the National Academic Theatre, Nikolay Pinigin, aimed at more senior theatre goers. Meanwhile, he has spent the whole season delighting his own fans and those of the Yanka Kupala Theatre in general[/b]I have no criticism to offer of the recent performance, as I liked the play, which is both sad and sparkling. It inspires thoughts of gratitude and pleasure for the medium of drama, stirring the heart. It also rejects stereotypes, which lose their edge with time. It is not a sensational piece and falls into no particular genre. Rather, it details ordinary lives, showing how we spend our ‘sensual potential’, perhaps following in the footsteps of the great Frenchman Honorй de Balzac.
I have no criticism to offer of the recent performance, as I liked the play, which is both sad and sparkling. It inspires thoughts of gratitude and pleasure for the medium of drama, stirring the heart. It also rejects stereotypes, which lose their edge with time. It is not a sensational piece and falls into no particular genre. Rather, it details ordinary lives, showing how we spend our ‘sensual potential’, perhaps following in the footsteps of the great Frenchman Honorй de Balzac.
Some venerable old men possess souls which remain young. My mother was like this and I may have inherited her ability to sincerely wonder, feel things deeply, cry and laugh. As I write these lines, a lump comes to my throat; my feelings bring me to recall associations which hardly lend themselves to words. Looking into the faces of elderly men with compassion, I sometimes think I see a silent sense of guilt, as if they wish to apologise for becoming so old. Of course, I cannot help but wonder if I will feel the same myself.
I try not to think about it, remembering how I encouraged my Mother to come here from Ukraine. I told her not to be sad, as she was loved, appreciated and needed. Of course, my mother benefitted not so much from the words but from her knowledge of my true concern. I cannot forget her transformation from a sad and somehow confused 80 year old into a respectable and beautiful lady, coming to Minsk for her final years.
Naturally, my mother experienced hunger, war and loss. Dignity, rather than being crushed by loneliness and worries for daily bread, strengthened within her. She loved to receive congratulatory wishes on the Victory Day, signed by the President, alongside cards from the Administration of Pervomaisky District. Her grandchildren and great-grandchildren brought tulips and lilies on May 9th. Meanwhile, her war pension was larger in Belarus than it had been in Ukraine. She enjoyed mimosas on March 8th, and new clothes and shoes for concerts and performances.
I remember her admiring Bogdan Stupka playing Tevye the Milkman, in a performance by the Lesya Ukrainka National Academic Theatre of Russian Drama, when it came from Kiev to Minsk on an exchange tour. In her youth, she took part in amateur productions in my home town of Volchansk, in Kharkov Region. I cannot forget her pride in her daughter working for the main newspaper of the country (SB — Belarus Today) and writing about distinguished people. I think that my mother would really like the performance at the Yanka Kupala Theatre.
Peace is inevitable
I won’t try to explore the underlying reasons for elderly men’s faces being so sad. Perhaps their degree of sadness is relative to how much social support they receive, wherever they live. Psychologists have pondered this very question and it may simply be that the sadness of the elderly is personal.
I don’t think director Pinigin or playwright Yelena Popova were exploring social causes. In 1950, the Dominican Monastery was demolished from the Central Square in Minsk; the site now hosts the Palace of the Republic, which sparkles with illumination each evening. We can all appreciate that cities grow and develop, with new architecture appearing. The authorities have to find a compromise to try and please the majority, keeping ‘the sheep intact and the wolves well fed’! Of course, it’s impossible to please everyone. I don’t think Ms. Popova had any desire to explore social problems in her play; they are merely side elements in the ‘Autumn of Life’, which comes to everyone. In our final years, we cannot help but muse on the past with nostalgia — even thinking of old parks, where we passed our youth.
Listapad. Andersen is about seven 21st century pensioners, detailing their thoughts on old age and their remembrances of youth. We hear such poignant musings rarely and cannot help but feel the tragedy of the process of aging. The show makes me remember working with a colleague on a series called Tales and Wise Tips, for Belarusian radio. Primary school children were invited to share their ideas on the hidden messages of fairy tales. The children were amazed to discover meanings they had never imagined and, in honesty, when reading Andersen`s fairy tales to my three year old son, I can’t say such messages had occurred to me either. The story of The Emperor’s New Clothes, for example, was just a bit of fun.
Two volumes of Andersen’s fairy tales are still on our bookshelves and I sometimes leaf through, remembering The Little Match Girl, Thumbelina and The Tin Soldier. I recall my feelings as a child: smiling in delight at the thought of the tiny girl born in a flower, and crying because she had to marry a mole and live in a hole. I also remember the awkwardness of Little Claus, who traded a dead grandmother...
I think that Mr. Pinigin is no exception in loving the fairy tales of Andersen. It is perhaps this love — plus a deep respect for the older generation of actors and the Yanka Kupala Theatre — which inspired him to choose the theme of the play. The result is a melancholy story about old men sitting on park benches, telling promenading kindergarten children stories from Andersen’s tales: Little Claus and Big Claus, The Nightingale, The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep, The Steadfast Tin Soldier and The Fir Tree. Through the prism of these fairy tales, acted brilliantly by the younger members of the theatre wearing quasi-masks, the elderly tell their life stories, allowing us a glimpse of understanding. Most held important positions or were famous in Soviet days, which contrasts starkly with their transition into the world of senior citizens — a painful time for most people.
The 14 older generation actors include People’s and Honoured Artists: Maria Zakharevich, Zinaida Zubkova, Galina Orlova, Nina Piskaryova, Natalia Kochetkova, Tamara Nikolaeva, Gennady Garbuk, Alexander Podobed, Gennady Ovsyannikov, Arnold Pomazan, Nikolay Kirichenko, Sergey Kravchenko, Georgy Malyavsky and Vladimir Rogovtsov (in two casts of seven). These masters of the stage have excelled themselves! At first glance, it seems there is little acting required, as there is not much text. But they do act! These acknowledged masters of the stage act easily, without verbosity. Everything is simple and clear, which is wonderful.
Throughout the performance, the actors tend to be in the foreground, sitting silently. Their high level of skill and professionalism allows them to do so naturally. Without complex dialogue, we notice the rich inner life of the characters. They keep silence in different ways, yet eloquently; we feel we know what their characters are thinking and even how they relate to each other. Surely, in creating their roles, they must have composed biographies for their characters. Of course, each has words to perform, taking centre stage for their monologues. The stories highlight their inner world, showing their sorrows and joys.
Do our elderly citizens feel unnecessary and abandoned? I don’t think so, since they are quite respectable and well-groomed. If their minds are sound then they still have a role to play. It is not that society doesn’t care enough for the elderly; rather, they carry spiritual baggage. Our moral foundation as a human being allows us to keep our feeling of respectability. It is irrelevant whether society, children or grandchildren need us.
Maybe, this explains the cheerful nature of Maria Zakharevich, who plays Nestranskaya; she thinks everything good without reason. Everything is good, as she simply lives and enjoys life. She shows old age in its intelligence and honour, worthy of respect and admiration, nurtured through years of experience. The final fairy tale, The Steadfast Tin Soldier, shows us the meeting of the Ballet Dancer and Soldier. Belief in miracles is always beautiful and they can truly happen. Tamara Nikolaeva plays Valya, who is the opposite of Nestranskaya, being full of discontent and envy of others, recalling a life of drudgery. Next to the sublime soul of Nestranskaya, Valya’s false wisdom ‘flickers and smoulders.’
The performance must resonate deeply with audiences, since who among us can avoid old age? It is inevitable. However, if we realise that our character in these final years is shaped by what we are now, we can learn a vital lesson. The actors before us have a dual face, which melds in the telling of each tale. Nikolay Kirichenko plays Arnold Pomazan, the obsequious Prime Minister in The Emperor’s New Clothes; he even takes childish pleasure in telling us that he always knows perfectly what to say to his superiors. Of course, children see the truth and say what they think, unafraid of anyone thinking them silly.
One can see reality in fairy tales and fairy tales in reality, as directors try to show us. The inner world of the elderly is unveiled through the prism of Andersen’s fairy tales… through allegory. Do they suffer because they sometimes have to put on an act? I think so. After all, we are all essentially good.
Journalist and writer Georgy Malyavsky, who plays Kurochkin, can ‘sing’ like the mechanical bird in The Nightingale; without others’ approval, his talent would die. Kurochkin prefers not to sin against the truth however. Death (Marta Golubeva) leaves the Emperor (Alexander Kazela) alone, as he chooses the singing of the Nightingale (Yulia Shpilevskaya).
A girl asked to see my theatre programme during the intermission, speaking fluent Belarusian. She looked local, wearing a linen suit and having an aristocratic hairstyle. After perusing it, she said thoughtfully, as if inviting debate, “What a pity. There’s no analysis at all.” I couldn’t help being amused but refrained from advising her to read Pinigin’s Translation for Analysis. She quickly ran to the foyer, perhaps in search of like-minded people. I so wanted to tell her that she shouldn’t be afraid of simply searching inside herself for what she was seeking; this is the shortest path to understanding the play.
The Yanka Kupala Theatre performance, defined as fairy tales for adults, asks us to search our own feelings. In this way, understanding grows. We know that the past cannot ever disappear, being tightly interwoven with the present. The apparent opposites of youth and old age have little separating them. Five minutes of the soundtrack from the film Carnival Night, popular long ago, in the days of our heroes’ youth, still sounds fresh; it is quite appropriately used as the fanfare for the entrance of the Emperor (Pavel Yaskevich). The theatre reminds us that life mixes sincerity and hypocrisy, joy and sorrow, wisdom and foolishness, our desire to be the best and the endless challenge of achieving this.
The sets, made by skilful Belarusian stage designer Boris Gerlovanov, are modest yet practical. Platforms overlap like folded strata, with a slight slope towards the front of the stage. Old-fashioned style benches are left and right, such as our parents and grandparents sat on in parks before the war. Angled screens behind show computer graphics of pages from Andersen’s books, like fragments of contemporary TV commercials, before fading to the image of Russian actor Veniamin Smekhov reading Pushkin’s Bacchic Song. Meanwhile, bushes are lit beautifully by rays of an orange sunset, reinforcing the idea of passing time and reality and fiction.
Undoubtedly, Alena Igrusha’s costumes are superbly fitting, allowing the actors to move easily in performing the fairy tales. The actors don’t hide behind the quasi-masks of artificiality; rather, their talent is more noticeable through their puppet-like movements and over emphasised intonation. We can only rejoice that these young actors of the Yanka Kupala Theatre have listened to their director.
The finale is also pleasing, featuring the shrill music of Andrey Zubrich, which sounds out clearly as the characters flock together like birds flying to distant lands. They freeze silently, huddling together, held in a spotlight. All seven elderly seem to look directly into the chilling heart of Eternity. In their past and present, all is clear but nobody knows what lies beyond the gates of death.
By Valentina Zhdanovich
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