Think, Chatsky, think!
[b]Premiere based on Alexander Griboyedov’s Woe from Wit comedy gathers full houses at Maxim Gorky National Academic Drama Theatre.. Old history take on a new breath of life[/b][b]The smoke of the Fatherland is sweet and pleasant to us![/b]The lines from Griboyedov’s play — familiar to us from school — are spoken by actors from the Russian Theatre (as we call it from force of habit); we cannot help but feel nostalgic. I remember studying Woe from Wit at school, learning Chatsky’s monologues by heart. The comedy overflows with aphorisms and puns. We used to wonder why the great critic Vissarion Belinsky called Chatsky a crude word-monger while Alexander Pushkin thought him kind and noble. We even acted out dialogues from the comedy…
The smoke of the Fatherland is sweet and pleasant to us!
The lines from Griboyedov’s play — familiar to us from school — are spoken by actors from the Russian Theatre (as we call it from force of habit); we cannot help but feel nostalgic. I remember studying Woe from Wit at school, learning Chatsky’s monologues by heart. The comedy overflows with aphorisms and puns. We used to wonder why the great critic Vissarion Belinsky called Chatsky a crude word-monger while Alexander Pushkin thought him kind and noble. We even acted out dialogues from the comedy…
I was lucky in having a wonderful Russian literature teacher, who encouraged us to apply our brains independently, and express our opinions even when these contradicted those of well-known critics. We easily cast out established stereotypes, which stop free thinking, and learnt not to blindly repeat commonly held opinions. I remember him reading out various critics’ thoughts on Woe from Wit and asking us repeatedly: ‘What do you think on this subject?’
Even at that time I understood, although obscurely, that Chatsky was a talented young man rather than a denunciator of the monarchical regime. He had no time for falsehood or pretence and spoke his mind, even where it was useless for him to do so. I remember our teacher’s description of Chatsky and how difficult it was to formulate our own understanding of Chatsky, Sofia and Molchalin. I now see how our teacher was skilfully unlocking the frames of the school curriculum, while giving us the chance choose our own opinions (our own original ideas or those synthesised from others). He allowed us to judge the popular opinions of critics and contemporaries of Griboyedov.
I now appreciate my favourite teacher and those who thought beyond the framework of the Soviet school curriculum, and feel gratitude; each gave me priceless life experience.
I perceive the performance of the Russian Theatre as a gift, returning us to the past while bringing recollections of school. I suppose I wasn’t alone, as the hall briskly buzzed at Griboyedov’s ‘winged words’: such happiness takes no account of time; blessed is the mind too small for doubt; it’s warm to him in the world; and houses are new yet prejudices are old. The audience — young and old — were smiling. Each had their own associations relating to Woe from Wit. The ‘legend is still fresh yet it’s hard to believe’ made me think of my old history teacher, who recalled the quote in a ringing acting voice — as if she were some Lenka or Vovka, trying to find an excuse for not learning a lesson. We would roar with laughter.
After the performance, it was especially pleasant to think about school, teachers and my childhood home. Images of the past revived brightly in my memory. I could see my native town of Volchansk as if it were in the palm of my hand. The hills seemed like huge mountains at the time, framing the town on the northern side. They were covered in greenery and surrounded by familiar blackthorn bushes — called ‘teren’ in Ukraine. These still grow on the slopes of the ravine, which neighbours my parents’ garden. For some reason, the leaves of those blackthorn bushes turn red in autumn, but don’t fall until winter.
Against the background of the first snow, the blackthorn looked incomparable, inspiring me with its bright flash of colour and bringing thoughts of summer’s long holidays and trips ‘to the mountains’. In various seasons, I would look down on the town from those hills, seeing smoke curl from chimneys and bonfires. In late autumn, I enjoyed inhaling the aroma of fallen leaves and chewing harsh blackthorn berries while dreaming of exotic countries, where the sun shone all year round and azaleas and oleanders blossomed.
On visiting hot locations, I’ve many times returned in my thoughts to my first home, wishing to once more embrace those sensations of childhood, as well as the smoke of the Fatherland. The Russian Theatre performance brought those wishes to life.
Play for all times
Woe from Wit is often called a play with universal and timeless appeal. Now, after the premiere, I believe Sergey Kovalchuk was a great choice for director. The text is so clever and ironic, that we cannot help but be enchanted of course; it is perfect training for actors wishing to test their professionalism. Most critics believe that Griboyedov’s Woe from Wit, which is over 150 years old, tests the maturity of any Russian theatre.
I don’t recall who once said that if a troupe has the right actors for each role it is a sign that the company is strong and able to play any repertoire. Some may suppose that, previously, our Russian Theatre lacked such actors — as it never before tried to stage Griboyedov’s play. I think this is only a critic’s musing; no one in Belarus can seriously doubt that the Russian Theatre company can tackle any play.
Is the stage director pleased with the performance? I suppose he can only feel sorrow that not all actors are on first-name terms with Griboyedov’s virtuoso poetry. Yes, the text is long, with many tongue twisters; it takes time to settle into the phrases. As the play progressed, I felt the actors were wearing their roles more comfortably, as a glove gradually shapes itself to your hand.
According to the professionals, the poetic phrases must be handled delicately. In this respect, I must praise People’s Artist of Belarus Olga Klebanovich for her role as the domineering Countess Khlestova, from Moscow; her intonation is perfect. We can see her as the queen of public opinion from her first phrase, pronounced distinctly on entering the stage, accompanied by her entourage. Her character is vividly drawn: bright, strong and willing. She has found just the right tone, creating the patroness of her young niece Sofia with skill.
Young actor Anton Belsky (Chatsky) also has a distinct voice, showing evidence of his training with Moscow’s Shchukin Theatrical Institute. Veronica Plyashkevich follows him, with her Sofia reverently pronouncing her lines. People’s Artist of Belarus Andrey Dushechkin (Platon Gorich) and Oksana Lesnaya (Natalia Gorich) are also brilliant, playing a typical married couple, where the wife wears the trousers. She is clever and feminine while skilfully manipulating her husband, who is kept on a short leash.
Platon Mikhailovich — a kind, good and intelligent person and a friend of Chatsky in the past — has nothing to do but adjust to his cunning wife. He has made his choice in marrying this beauty. Meanwhile, audiences can surely only love the haughty intonation of Yelena Pastrevich (Countess Tugoukhovskaya). In fact, all the minor roles are performed convincingly, proving, as Stanislavsky said, that no roles are minor.
Each actor performs their role professionally, showing us all the variation in human character — each weakness and bias. The six noble daughters seek rich and successful husbands, flitting about the stage like strident birds or dragonflies. The play may be 150 years old, but has much changed? Anton Zagoretsky, played by Oleg Kots, is a trickster and a gambler, who appears at Famusov’s house as if directly from a contemporary casino where he, after displaying a royal flush, has scooped a large profit. Even the way he drinks his glass of champagne is fascinating; if you go to see the play, pay attention to this small detail.
We see a society where the elite pass judgement on everyone else; they decide the rules by which all should live. The grotesque irony of this situation is coupled with our gradually building an understanding of their psychological motivation. Chatsky is rejected as mad by society in a scene staged symbolically; Famusov’s entire ‘party’ gathers as a unified, motionless group to shun him. It’s difficult to decide whether they are themselves frightened of what may lie within or whether they simply wish to stamp their unshakable principles upon anyone who dares to select an alternate path. They appear behind a faceless mask, devolved of all true humanity. A blue and deadly light fills the stage, sounding a note of eternity; the rigidity of conformance remains with us still. Griboyedov’s play is forever meaningful, unconstrained by any particular century or decade.
The performance’s strong harmony sees every scene cleverly linked, like pieces within a jigsaw. It is a sign of the stage director knowing exactly what he wants from his actors and the play. His thoughts crystallise gradually, growing clearer with each rehearsal — or, even, from performance to performance.
Of course, Sergey Kovalchuk realises that real people are not caricatures. We have varied views on morality, culture, relationships and business. Some of us are more eager to hide behind masks than others, seeking to define decency by a strict code of convention. Some of us are more at ease, wishing to be open and truly understood. We are all motivated by different goals: some seek to serve society while others seek only their own well-being; some are never content with their lot, while others seek only to love and be loved. Of course, many of us sit somewhere between these two extremes. Within each person, light and dark struggle.
In an interview with my colleague, even before the premiere, the stage director told me, “Our philosophical turn should be interesting to contemporary audiences, as the three leading roles — Famusov, Molchalin and Chatsky — display characteristics all of us recognise. We all wish to preserve traditions, and must face confrontation and adaptation. During our lives, we find these three ‘truths’ ever crossing, obliging us to take on various positions and masks.” Remarkably, the theatre has managed to show this idea clearly.
Coming from childhood
The theatre has strictly observed the play’s text, which is set in the house of rich Moscow official Famusov (played by People’s Artist of the USSR Rostislav Yankovsky and People’s Artiste of Belarus Alexander Tkachenok). He is the careful father of 17 year old Sofia. Meanwhile, the servants run about the house: cheerful and slightly dell-arte Liza (Yelena Stetsenko), lively barman Petrushka (Alexey Senchilo) and impressive Sluga (Honoured Artiste of Belarus Eduard Goryachiy).
Clocks tick, the stove warms, guests are welcomed and conversations tackle how best to promote one’s own relatives in their careers. Moreover, parties are organised for acquaintances. Sofia loves Molchalin (Ruslan Chernetsky) — her father’s secretary and a person with a hidden agenda. However, her father dreams of her marrying Colonel Skalozub (Andrey Krivetsky) — a courageous military man. The arrival of Chatsky — the son of Famusov’s dead friend — disturbs the slumberous routine. He returns from spending three years travelling the world to the place where he was happy in childhood and adolescence and, having been brought up alongside Sofia, hopes to have an easy claim on her heart. Alas, events do not play out in the way Chatsky expects.
How does Anton Belsky perform Chatsky? Of course, his character isn’t a denunciator of the social system. Who would believe in a Chatsky who makes a monkey of himself while criticising everyone and everything? At worst, we’d think him mad, or ignore him. Chatsky boldly speaks his mind, is passionate in his desire to improve the world, and is convinced that those who have come before have been mistaken in their views (as is common at the age of 20). He yearns to change established views on life.
Chatsky returns from his travels in a more mature frame of mind and still in love with Sofia. However, failing to find his feelings reciprocated, he is first embarrassed and then becomes hardened, searching for a reason for her change of heart. It is a psychology we can all relate to; rejected love can only bring inner-conflict. Chatsky’s feelings are injured, so his arguments change accordingly. He is initially slightly concerned, yet benevolent and peaceful (hoping that Sofia does really still love him) and speaks good-naturedly with everyone — although giving answers which reveal his freedom-loving views.
We can only wonder whether Chatsky would speak less offensively to Sofia’s father if she had responded to his feelings. Instead, he insults him: ‘Where are these fathers of the Fatherland whom we should take as examples?’ It perhaps seems more likely that he’d have kept quiet until after the marriage, becoming similar to his friend: Platon Gorich.
The final scenes are sad, with the stage director sending Chatsky directly into a puddle; leaping over a lop-sided fence, he slips over and sits dejected. Failing to find Sofia’s love, he becomes a figure of pity for the audience. His dreams are frustrated while his pure energy has been broken in the face of unrequited love. We also feel sorry for Sofia. Veronica Plyashkevich imbues her fragile character with huge internal power, preventing Sofia from being crushed by Molchalin’s meanness (he responds to her love only in search of wealth). Although she is amazed at his treachery in the final scene, she is most shocked at herself. We can imagine Sofia being sad for some time at her careless rejection of true love — as happens in youth.
It is good to see Chatsky being portrayed as neither a buffoon nor a hero; he is rather the embodiment of uncompromising youth — which sees life in black and white alone. It is his weakness but also gives him pure nobility, set against Molchalin’s shameless grasping.
Ruslan Chernetsky, who plays Molchalin, is handsome and expressive, drawing his character with bold strokes. We cannot help but view him as a cat, able to fall on its back or bite as needed: always remaining slightly wild. He can sing a love ballad to show off of course but its sincerity is questionable.
The director uses clever symbolism. Sweets ‘rain down’ on Liza, sent by her spellbound Petrushka, while Sofia blows out a candle to show her extinct feelings towards Chatsky and the end of childhood (when Chatsky and Sofia were such friends). Such delicate details add their own weight to the words of the play. Meanwhile, Chatsky’s fastened raincoat symbolises his closed soul; similarly, Sofia keeps her coat fastened, wrapping her hands across her shoulders. Childhood has ended, never to be revived, and her heart is closed to Chatsky. It is a motif we can recognise from Bulgakov’s famous Master and Margarita.
Does Famusov understand his daughter’s drama? The two actors playing the character each bring their own particular accent to the role. Yankovsky’s Famusov is haughty, with a firm faith in the traditions of his forefathers; he believes these will guarantee prosperity and public status. We sympathise with his world outlook, as he is convinced of his honesty and blamelessness in all aspects. He wishes only to maintain his status quo, viewing any change in the established order as a mistake; he sees the laws of society as being inviolable. In contrast, Alexander Tkachenok plays the role more emotionally and impulsively; he defends his ideals while being extremely sensitive towards criticism.
Pavel Yakubchenko’s score and Alla Sorokina’s sets complement the acting wonderfully. The music matches each character precisely, reflecting their joys and sorrows; it illuminates the empty-headed ‘galloping’ within Famusov’s house. The ‘removal’ of a huge draped wall in Famusov’s house is horrifying, leaving a gaping space and emptiness almost like an abyss.
We are presented with an amazing insight into the human subconscious. This may be why Kovalchuk shifts the final scene from Famusov’s house to the entrance porch, where we see the night rain pouring down. Shocked and hurt, Chatsky wishes to escape from Moscow; he looks out into the darkness — as if looking into himself, pondering his loss.
By Valentina Zhdanovich