Sunday, March 04, 2007

The Gospel According to Robert Sturua

The curtains open to a white stage. On the left, a man in white clothes, wearing a tallit (Jewish prayer shawl), prays. On the right, a woman wearing a white nun's outfit. Another guy, an Angel dressed in white, comes down from heaven and says something to them. At the back of the stage 3 minor angels, dressed in white.

Thus opens Robert Sturua's version of Shakespeare's 'Twelfth Night' at the Rustaveli Theatre in Tbilisi.

The notice on the website had mentioned an English translation, but when I got to the theatre this was not to be had - everything in Georgian. Last time I had seen the play was about 35 years ago or so. And then this opening scene. Was I confused? Was I in the right play? Had someone else written a play of the same name? Eventually some reference points appeared - I heard the names of 'Olivia', 'Sebastiano' and of course 'Malvolio', he with the yellow tights.

But had Shakespeare written in the bible scenes? These must be Sturua's additions; the story line developed to include a nativity scene with a delightful donkey (pantomime version); the second act opened onto the shepherds watching at night; Herod had a fairly major scene, and when we had reached the happy end of Shakespeare's play, suddenly Christ appeared carrying his cross across the stage, hammering noises were heard off stage and a short while later he appeared at the back of the stage, fixed to the cross. Bit of a downer, that. Even more confusing, the guy who played Orsino, the Duke of Illyria, also had a role of the narrator/director of the gospel play - and sometimes the main characters of Shakespeare's play interacted with the gospel characters. Freedom of adaptation. Wonder what all that was about, though.

At first, totally lacking verbal understanding, I thought the production was a bit over the top (leaving aside the gospel part), with a fair bit of hamming it up, it seemed. But it grew on me....I'm not sure if in the original play Malvolio is the main character, but here he certainly was. Throughout the first half I was trying to decide whether he was the same actor who had played Hamlet the week before - same height, same build - but he was so different! Malvolio was a gay character, mincing around Olivia and slowly descending into madness (at the end being carted away on a peacock, wearing a straight jacket). The scene of him reading a letter purporting to be from Olivia had not a dry eye in the house! Once the makeup was off, for the bows, it turned out that he was Hamlet the week before; his name is Zaza Papuashvili, and he's undoubtedly the star of the show (tonight he's in 'Waiting for Godot' - he's really busy!).

As all of Sturua's productions (he is the artistic director of this theatre, but are there any others?) this also contains the music of Gia Kancheli, and what Brits might describe as 'the Ministry of Funny Walks' - the actors walk, dance, skip in all sorts of funny/strange/delightful ways, and like all his plays, this one contained much dance/acrobatics/people appearing from above and below - there's no two-dimensional stage for him! The audience giggled, laughed and applauded their way through the second half and hugely enjoyed it. So did I, even though I did not understand a word of it! Might go and see it again....