Why Theatre, and its ‘Idiots’, Still Matter in Today’s Russia
In Moscow, the Gogol Centre has produced a loose adaptation of Lars von Trier’s 1998 film Idioterne (The Idiots, or Idioten in German) specifically designed to challenge social and political repression in today’s Russia. One might well wonder how such a production, which features homosexual scenes and the Kremlin burning, fares in a country now noted for its increasingly conservative attitudes towards human sexuality and public dissent (think: trampled gay rights, think: Pussy Riot). Even in Britain, an after-midnight showing of Lars von Trier’s film on Channel 4 prompted an official investigation due to scenes involving engorged human organs and penetration. One might imagine that in Moscow, the conflation of sex and politics could cause a riot, or at the very least an annexation. What you can do in Denmark, or in Berlin for that matter, you can’t do on the Eurasian steppe.
Or so you’d think.
There is an intensely performative core to The Idiots, which promises to work well for Kirill Serebrennikov’s production when it comes from Moscow to the Schaubühne‘s stage in Berlin on 11 and 12 April as part of the FIND Festival. Its expressiveness is also the reason why Trier’s film was controversial and branded by some as discriminatory towards individuals with developmental problems.
The protagonists mimic the mentally handicapped in the film (they ‘spaz’) as a method to challenge the oppression of social conventions, thereby releasing emotional interiors perhaps stunted by a conservative bourgeois society. As a technique, it leads at times to poignant and disarming emotional transparency. This ‘spazzing’, however, is not done in private, but often as a hoax on unsuspecting spectators or participants.
The film interrogates and criticises the cruelty of these provocations, such as when the idiots imitate ‘retards’ (so the film provocatively calls them) at a fancy restaurant, or when they sell Christmas decorations door to door, presumably to unsuspecting real-life citizens unaware they will appear in a feature film. The group soon falls apart, not because of their open sexuality, but because of their inability to carry ‘authentically’ their ‘idiot’ personalities into ordinary life.
Trier is smart enough to engage in class critique (the idiots act like spoiled rich children eating caviar) and to be sometimes compassionate towards the victims of the hoaxes (the central character, Karen, suggests that the others are simply ridiculing the unfortunate with their radicalised college-humour gags). But Trier does indicate convincingly how much crueller conventional suppressed emotion can be than the volatile, but generally, happy ‘madhouse’ of the idiots.
The drama of the film’s performances might look good on the stage, but it is rather more difficult to carry over the film’s uncompromisingly spare aesthetics. The Idiots, of course, was composed in line with the manifesto of Dogme 95, a ‘vow of chastity’ prohibiting the use of special lighting and effects (even forbidding props not already found on location) and post-production manipulation. A further question is whether a film that criticises freedom of expression in a tolerant Western democracy, where ‘spoiled children’ are offered the indulgence to ‘spaz’ without a violent slap in the face from society, can translate meaningfully to the paternalism and conservatism of Russian life. And if it doesn’t translate, what might be the risks for its producers?
The interview I conducted with Kirill Serebrennikov, the director of the Gogol Centre’s Idiots which will be shown at the Schaubühne in Berlin (11/12 April, with English and German subtitles), is really too topical, I think, not to excerpt at length. Here is part of our conversation. I very much look forward to a production which The Moscow Times has called ‘breakthtaking theatre’, commenting that it ‘pushes the art form in [Moscow] several steps ahead of everyone else’. I might add that his Idiots is part of a trilogy of plays produced by the centre, based on films (the others are of Visconti and Fassbinder), and that Lars von Trier’s recent film Nymphomaniac Part I, had its Moscow premiere on 10 February at the Gogol Center.
*Joseph Pearson: What are the differences between staging Idiots in Russia compared to, say, Denmark. Or in Berlin?
Kirill Serebrennikov: when we started to work on this story, because we took only the story from Lars von Trier, it was quite clear that it completely doesn’t work in Moscow, because Lars von Trier’s story is about tolerance, and his group of idiots tests the strength of tolerance in Western societies. In Russia there is no tolerance at all. So if you start to provoke people, you immediately get a certain kind of reply, and it could be dangerous. I understood that one of the main topics of our version will be not just the ‘idiots’ but the ‘non-idiots’. And it could be interesting to understand their motivations and reasons for their actions.
*What was the reaction of the audience in Moscow to the stage performance at the Gogol Centre?
The audience was at first shocked. For them the way the show was done looked completely unexpected. But now it’s always sold out; probably a new generation is looking for something important for them, because this show reflects different aspects of political and social life. We have no direct answers. But for a Russian audience it is probably important to ask the right questions on stage.
*Do you find that your work is practically affected by the political content of this piece, for example? Do you find yourself running into problems with the law on homosexual propaganda?
The audience who usually comes to our performance is very good, very smart, very intellectual, very civil-rights values oriented. We are speaking the same language with the audience, and they are laughing and applauding. For example, during homosexual scenes, and other scenes where the Kremlin is burning, there is applause.
*Don’t you find a certain amount of frustration in reaching an audience that mostly agrees with you? What would it be like––might it be dangerous––to perform the piece in your hometown of Rostov-on-Don?
Theatre is just a mirror, this mirror reflects the face of society. Of course, a show like Idiots is not very good for a place like Rostov-on-Don, because people will be shocked, and probably they will be strictly against it. In Moscow, I always noticed how the audience divides into two huge groups: some of them are against idiots, some of them are for them. Our Idiots is a good test of the state of society.
*Who then in a Russian perspective are the idiots?
We are idiots. Theatre people are idiots, liberals are idiots, Pussy Riot are idiots, people with desire to live in freedom are idiots. Journalists who don’t want to work in propaganda are idiots. Idiots are minorities. All minorities are idiots.
*How do you bring a film to the theatre?
Our show is very far from the original. We took the main idea of the film, but then started to improvise, and started to do our own scenes, to work with a dramaturge, and then created something far from Lars von Trier’s plot, because, as I told you before, it doesn’t work in Russia. It would be ridiculous. That’s why, in our show, the characters are different, they have different reasons to do what they do and there is real violence for instance.
*Is that the change you needed to make, to change the level of violence?
It’s quiet clear that violence is part of Russia’s mental climate nowadays. Our idiots are more tragic in this sense. In today’s Russia, to be idiot is very very very dangerous. And this danger is really deadly.
*What Dogma methods do you use on stage? Can this manifesto be transferred to the theatre from film?
We tried to do it. Before the performance, the audience reads the principles of our theatre dogma on the screens. There are several which are rather important. We don’t use special artificial light. The actors wear what they wear. We don’t use special effects. We don’t do what is not possible in reality ‘here and now’.
*How will a Russian production work for a German audience?
We don’t adopt it to Germans, because it seems to me that the problems we are talking about are universal. We have no idea how it will work in Berlin; we’ll see. Once we had a scandal in the Schaubühne at the FIND festival a couple years ago, at our performance of Otmorozki [Scumbags] by Prilepin, when the Soviet generation from Charlottenburg came to listen to the Russian language, and when they heard rude words, or street language of characters who fought with a regime, they were very upset and shocked. They exited saying ‘Fuck you, you are terrible, we want you to die’, and so on.
*What is the future of the theatre climate in Russia? Is there a place for idiots in the future of Russia?
It seems to me that the theatre climate has become worse and worse. In previous years, the government didn’t pay much attention to theatre. It remained the only place for freedom and democracy. Now we see the attempts to mark what is right and what is wrong. For instance, in a recent political television show I was used as an example of how some new theatre directors ‘spoil the Russian classical tradition and make nasty, terrible theatre which makes people feel like animals’. It looked like a case of ‘degenerate art’ in Nazi times. This crap was on air in prime time for the entire Russian public on a State TV broadcast. It hasn’t been like this since the Soviet period. For this reason, I think that they will definitely begin censoring contemporary theatre soon.
I am left between respect for Serebrennikov’s courage, hopefulness about theatre’s continued role as a location for dissent, and despair about the downward spiral just a relatively short distance to the East from the German capital.
James Meek in the London Review of Books (20 March 2014), reporting from the Ukraine, gives a generational explanation to the crisis in Russia: ‘If you were born after 1985 you have no remembered reality to measure against [the] false vision [of the Soviet Union]… this is the context that has made it possible for Vladimir Putin and his government to sell Russia’s opportunistic invasion of Ukraine to his own people’. This older-knows-best attitude strikes me as dispiritingly wrong-footed, especially when Serebrennikov suggests that his audiences, of the new generation not the Soviet generation, are the most open to daring and dissent.
As the world looks to Crimea, remember what the Gogol Centre is doing in Moscow, and soon in Berlin.
*This article first appeared on the FIND festival blog.
Dr. Joseph Pearson is a Canadian writer, historian and local expert on Berlin. He lectures at New York University-Berlin and is the editor of The Needle.