The scenes outside London’s Piccadilly Theatre this Wednesday were stereotypical of the West End in its heyday. The streets were positively bursting with excitement as Londoners and Russians welcomed Moscow’s renowned Sovremennik Theatre, alongside legendary director Galina Volchek, for the opening of a triple bill of plays: Three Comrades, Two for the Seesaw and The Three Sisters.
First up: Three Comrades by Erica Maria Remarque (best known for his 1929 novel All Quiet on the Western Front). The plot is cushioned by a trio of struggling mechanics, battling on in amongst the turmoil and the hardship of The Great Depression, but centres on one of these three – Robert Lohkamp (played thoughtfully by Alexander Khovanskiy), an enthusiastic drinker, disenchanted by his bleak surroundings. Luckily, Robert is soon propelled from his perpetual state of gloom and intoxication upon meeting the dainty and graceful Patrice (Chulpan Khamatova).
This is a tale of the power of love and the labyrinth of passions that come with it, from agonising jealousy to fruitless hope.
The plot itself is secondary to the sheer spectacle of the production (seamlessly produced by Oliver King and Lee Menzies). The sets are both elaborate and considered – the contextual bleakness cleverly balanced against extravagant scenery that swings in and out of sight throughout. The interplay of music, lights and costume is powerful here – all three working both together and apart to consistently surprise the audience and reinforce the horrors of the time. This innovative and powerful production makes theatre feel alive, as theatre is supposed to. And whether or not you feel up to three hours of following subtitles (or indeed listening to the Russian script), there is something so truly marvellous about the electric energy of a true spectacle, shown here in spades.
It is easy, then, to forget the cultural weight of this performance. The Sovremennik Theatre (Russia’s oldest theatre company) was founded in the 1956 during the Khrushchev Thaw. In keeping with the times, the Sovremennik sought to present an art form that was true to the nature of humanity, that presented voices and viewpoints with integrity; unpoisoned by political bias or interference. Up until the 1990s, the Soveremennik Theatre was banned from touring internationally, so its arrival in the cultural heart of the UK capital is poignant in itself.
Galina Volchek co-founded the Sovremennik and has pioneered its success ever since, becoming its artistic director in 1972 and leading the Theatre for the past five decades. A disciple of the Stanislavasky Method (which supports acting using the art of experience, as opposed to employing only technical training), Volcheck here directs Three Comrades and her adherence to the Sovremennik Theatre’s values is unwavering.
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Despite the history, the politics, and the raw emotion, there is also frivolity, largely in the form of bosoms, balloons and butchery. A decorative chorus of hookers and endless extras carry the spectacle throughout. Interestingly, the female role who is most loaded with personality – indeed, perhaps the only humanised female character – is Patrice, who is dressed head-to-toe in beige throughout, juxtaposing the louche and colourful but largely interchangeable female chorus.
At times tricky to follow, and at times slightly drawn-out, the Sovremennik Theatre’s season in London is not to be missed – if, for nothing else, then for its spectacle. Three Comrades is unquestionably spectacular.
The Sovremennik Theatre’s productions of Three Comrades, Two for the Seesaw and The Three Sisters are on at the Piccadilly Theatre until May 13th.