Alexander Ostrovsky’s Truth is Good, but Happiness is Better premieres at Maxim Gorky National Academic Drama Theatre on eve of theatrical season’s closure.
As soon as the new theatrical season begins, this play should be top of all our lists; it boasts all the elements of the ‘perfect’ performance — soothing the soul via laughter and inspiring us with hope for the future. Its cathartic nature reminds one of classical theatre.
Ostrovsky’s clever comedy — staged by director Arkady Kats (People’s Artiste of Latvia and Ukraine) — reminds us that we need jokes and laughter to lighten the burden of the everyday; without a sense of fun, our lives become mundane and joyless. Although the performance features unlucky businessmen — always talking of collapsing finances (topical indeed!) — we can all relate to the story; the feelings explored are universal.
The plot is as follows. In the Baraboshev merchant family, young Poliksena is secretly courting a poor clerk, Platon. Her widower-father, Amos Panfilych, is making plans to take money from rich merchant widow Mavra Tarasovna. Meanwhile, Mavra is striving to keep an orderly household; her orchard is threatened by thieves, her son is a spendthrift and her featherheaded granddaughter is set on marrying a penniless commoner. The appearance of her first love, Groznov, brings chaos, but results in a happy ending.
Most Belarusians have studied the play at school, so the pleasant feeling of anticipation is missing. However, this enables us to concentrate on the psychology of the play and the personal relations explored. It directs us to appreciate the actors’ performances and gain insight into their characters’ motivation.
Artistic director Tatiana Shvets — a People’s Artiste of Latvia — has done a great job with the set, which depicts an apple orchard. Its symbolism is clear; it represents the Garden of Eden for lovers. Lilac blooms fill carts (associated with romantic dreams and hopes for happiness) and the apples are ripe simultaneously, defying nature. At the theatre, we can suspend the need for utter realism.
Our attention focuses most on Mavra Tarasovna (played by People’s Artiste of Belarus Bella Masumyan). Her orchard — like her heart — is protected by barbed wire. However, the presence of the lilac indicates that love still lives in her memory, buried deeply. Of course, she is reminded of her passion when former love Groznov (played by People’s Artiste of the USSR Rostislav Yankovsky) returns.
Yankovsky steals the stage from his first words, lighting up the performance with bright energy. His mastery inspires his colleagues and audiences alike. Applause follows him everywhere, showing audiences’ great love for this wonderful actor, who entrances us with such simple actions as eating an apple with a knife, before wrapping the knife in a red cloth. He exudes power, despite his age, and each of his speeches offers meaning on many levels. His movements add reality in a truly professional manner, gradually building relations with other characters. Yankovsky uses psychological subtexts to show us that truth is good, but happiness is better — influencing our consciousness.
Ostrovsky’s plays are characterised by a search for life’s truths, while showing that problems can occur when such truths are revealed. Platon — played by young Vasily Grechukhin — is absurdly exaggerated in his desire for honesty, bringing comedy and demonstrating that life cannot be viewed in black and white. Young people are often rigid in their views, but such an attitude is inappropriate; we need to compromise and be willing to overlook some uncomfortable truths evident around us. Our relations with others should be based on honesty but we must make allowances, to avoid offence.
This talent is perfectly demonstrated by another theatrical master — People’s Artiste of Belarus Olga Klebanovich, who plays nanny Filitsata. The actress has added her personal vision to the character, giving a masterful performance, but praise is also due to director Kats. Filitsata has spent her long life serving rich people yet remains young in her soul, rejoicing in others’ happiness. She is clever, creative and has a sense of irony (as is usual for the genre) which she is obliged to hide — since servants are never supposed to be cleverer than their masters. Klebanovich boasts powerful psychological range but admits she took on the role cautiously, having never played such an old woman before (Filitsata is about two decades older than herself).
No doubt, Klebanovich has brought all her individual zest to the role. Rather than presenting us with a vision of old age, she accents the young soul of a woman who has failed to find personal happiness. Filitsata does not explicitly explain her past, so we are left to draw our own conclusions regarding her youth. She may have experienced unrequited love. We can’t help but notice that, in arranging the happiness of her pupil Poliksena (played by Veronica Plyashkevich), she sings the folk song I’ve Lost My Ring. It unites humour, sadness and a warning not to miss out on happiness. Filitsata walks as old women do, like a duck, yet also seems to hover above the stage with light footsteps. She loves the fact that she is indispensable to her masters and is delighted with her arrangements for the happiness of Mavra, Groznov, Poliksena and Platon…
In the finale, all the characters gather on a bench under an apple tree. As a truly harmonious theatrical troupe, they sing a folk song about love, emphasising the theme of the play — that happiness is possible if our hearts are open to it. The poet was right in saying that we can fall in love at any age. Who would disagree…
By Valentina Zhdanovich