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“The Arena of Life.” Performance for reflective spectator
Nikolai Gubenko

The long-awaited first night of “The Arena of Life” at the “Community of Taganka Actors” theater took place in mid-June. The production has a lengthy subtitle: “Extravagant theater-and-circus mystery play with elements of taming animals and people. Staged version of literary works by Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin.” The inventiveness of the staging and special effects are dazzling but behind them there are serious reflections about the fate of Russia. The entire cast was beyond praise! It looks like Community’s actors effortlessly master all genres: satire, drama, grotesque, clowning, conjuring and acrobatics. Director and the author of the staged version, artistic director of the theater People’s Artist of Russia Nikolai Gubenko told VIP-Premier’s analyst Yelena Karakoleva about his new production.

Vip-Inform
Nikolai Gubenko, People’s Artist of the Russian Federation, since 1993 – artistic director of the “Community of Taganka Actors” theater, deputy chairman of the Moscow City Duma, coordinator of the Public Consultative Council of Political Parties under the Moscow City Duma. Was born in Odessa in 1941. Graduated from the actors’ and then film directors’ departments of the All-Union State Institute of Cinematography (classes of Sergei Gerasimov and Tamara Makarova). From 1964 to 1968 – actor of the Theater on Taganka. From 1969 to 1987 – film director at the Mosfilm Studios. From 1987 to 1991 – theater director and actor of the Theater on Taganka. From 1989 to 1991 – Minister of Culture of the USSR. Since 1992 – president of the International Association for the Support of Culture. From 1995 to 2003 – deputy of the State Duma of the Russian Federation. Deputy chairman and then chairman of Duma’s Committee for Culture. Director and scriptwriter of films “A Soldier Came Back from the Front,” “Wounded Game,” “Life, Tears and Love,” “Forbidden Zone,” and “If Your Want to Be Happy” among others. Winner of national and international film festival prizes. Married to Zhanna Bolotova, People’s Actress of the Russian Federation.

– Mr. Gubenko, please accept congratulations on producing a new talented, bright and deep work. It seems a miracle to create such performance in a budget-financed theater and without support from sponsors. What made you turn to the great satirist of the past?

– What we narrate in our new performance is systematically repeated in this country. Classic literature is so attractive just because it is always contemporary. We tried to minimize political implications of original works by Saltykov-Shchedrin that we staged: “Diary of a Provincial in Petersburg,” “Gentlemen of Tashkent,” “Variegated Letters” and others. We wanted our performance to have a spectacular form, acceptable for everyone who comes to the theater. A spectator will return home from the performance and understand what it was about. And it is about what you’ve seen in the documentary clips in the final scene of the performance. Coming up to the final of my life, soon I will be 69, I understand very well that in these inhuman conditions I will never live to see a day when we are again kind to each other, support each other, love and take delight in the success of each other.

– Your extremely powerful performance speaks plainly about the most painful long-standing problems. I can remember nothing of this kind in our theater art in the past few years.

– The idea was very simple: to overcome the slave mentality in oneself. The people that in hard times for the country performs numerous miracles of self-sacrifice, appears helpless before a handful of minions and manipulative scums. That’s the bitter irony of our history. All the heroic deeds of our people – the victory in the Great Patriotic War, industrialization, the overcoming of poverty, homelessness and illiteracy, respect for labor, and the creation of a socialist state as a unique social project of global importance – cannot protect this people from the tyranny of sovereigns, general secretaries or presidents. Look what is happening now! Millions of honest and decent people are humiliated and plunged into poverty and lawlessness. People admire how on the pages of yellow press an oligarch is kissing his girlfriend in the ass and in the meantime miners in Raspadskaya are dying! Where is the so-called “social responsibility” of business? People have nothing to eat and the former owner of the infamous Moscow “Cherkizovsky” market makes boast of solid gold toilet bowls in his Mardan Palace Hotel. Our performance tells that we see all this and tolerate and asks if there is human dignity left in us.

– The sparkling fountain of your performance appears to be very close in terms of aesthetics to Bertold Brecht, particularly to his play “The Career of Arturo Ui.” In the theater world they say that, already being a student of the Institute of Cinematography, you achieved a stunning success playing the title role in Brecht’s play.

– The modern theater tends towards greater spectacularity, synthesis of various genres and kinds of arts and new technical effects. We tried to be in step with the theatrical times. If the theater community appreciates our work to its merit, we’ll be quite satisfied.

– And what a wonderful cast you have! It is my duty to mention them all: M. Lebedev as adventurist sprechstalmeister Prokop, M. Basov as Sila Terentyevich with the specific provincialism of the first and the last president of the USSR, A. Yelizavetinsky as the unprincipled Podkhalimov, D. Perov as the ominous Doctor pulling the strings of these political puppets, and of course N. Gubenko as the unforgettable devil-may-care Mnogoboltayev with the swaying walk and grumbling voice of the first Russian president, and, finally, young Dmitri Mulyar as the confused Provincial. The colorful and juicy set design was a wonderful work of artist V. Serebrovsky. There were also a lot of genuine works of painting art surrounding actors and the expressive and carefully selected soundtrack varying from classical to circus music.

– Working with actors on “The Arena of Life” we received serious assistance from professors of the State School of Circus and Variety Arts. My special thanks go to our magnificent consultant, illusionist Vladimir Perevodchikov, an incredibly temperate person, enthusiast and master of his art.

– The performance deals with serious problems of temptation with power and the voluntary slavery of dependents appeasing the authorities. What audience are you targeting by your performance? Will it be understood by young people brought up on popcorn and Pepsi Cola?

– First and foremost, I’m targeting a reflective spectator. The performance may be liked or disliked by young people, conservators, liberals, communists, or members of the United Russia party. But they all cannot fail to realize what our main hero, Provincial, puts as: “The body can be annihilated, but you cannot decapitate the truth!”

– How it happened that, upsetting admirers of your talent, for more than 20 years you have been out of films both as actor and film director?

– In 1993, it was necessary to save the theater and at the instance of the troupe of the newly born “Community of Taganka Actors” theater I was appointed its artistic director. For 18 years the theater existed without a penny of state support from federal or city authorities.

– But how could you explain that last year the Moscow city government suddenly had a change of heart?

– Sixteen years after the theater was created, Moscow authorities finally agreed to recognize it and granted the status of a municipal theater. My second election to the Moscow City Duma from the Communist party was also a help.

– I remember very well how back in 1989 you joined the Communist party unit at the Mosfilm Studios. Your then latest film “Forbidden Zone” was rather tough for those times. It seemed rather strange that you, such independent person and principal adversary of “partycracy,” suddenly decided to join the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

– With the ideas of the Party, or better to say with the ideas that were leading humanity to progress – justice, self-giving and mercifulness – I was tied by blood bonds: the death of my father, an officer of the Red Army, and mother in 1941 and 1942. And in hard times for the Communist party, when in the end of the 1980s it was rocked by blows of its enemies I decided it was admissible and necessary to join its ranks. All my creative life as well as that of the majority of my colleagues, who believe themselves to be intelligentsia, was such thanks to the Soviet system. Alas, during the years of the so-called “perestroika” those people showed that they cannot be called intelligentsia, because treachery is something incompatible with the notion “intelligentsia.” Where, in what country on earth, people from the street could join the elite Institute of Cinematography and receive best education like I and many my institute fellows did?

– What do you think about the fate of the Union of Cinematographers, which is today in the center of permanent scandals and debates?

– I believe that in the situation of the crisis of the national film-making industry everything is to be done to preserve the unity of the UC. Those who don’t want to be its members may create something else. This will not be a new Union, but rather a grouping of people united by hatred for the incumbent leadership of the UC. Although, I openly told Nikita Mikhalkov many times that if there is a civil war, we will be on different sides of the frontline. His views on some very important pages of the Russian history are absolutely alien to me. It’s a different story that Mikhalkov, as a talented film maker and organizer respected by authorities and oligarchs, at this very moment could be useful for the UC’s efforts to preserve its material base and increase social allowances to film making people strangled by poverty. With all my respect for Marlen Khutsiyev, Mikhalkov is a better choice. I’m pragmatic in this respect.

– Returning to our conversation about the situation of your theater, what is most important for its viability today?

– I have only one wish. I would like the “Community of Taganka Actors” theater, which has finally found its path to the audience, to always enjoy full house and communicate with public opinion through the press. Watching “The Arena of Life” you’ve heard many truthful words about how the press can govern the state. So, much depends on the press. Over many years we were not among favorites of the press and drama critics, especially those who never were in our theater. For them we simply do not exist and everything what we do is bad. Meanwhile, our troupe consists of extremely talented actors working for peanuts. Their average wage is 15,000 rubles. How is it possible to live on this money in Moscow today?

– In the shocking final scene, to the strains of Mozart’s Requiem, clips from documentaries about disasters, wars and terrorist attacks in this country alternate with clips showing presidential inauguration ceremonies and faces of our oligarchs. The final scene leaves nobody indifferent but it gives no hope. Could it be true that Russia is doomed? Like a phoenix it always rose again surviving any disaster.

– Hope springs eternal in the human breast. But if power continues to serve interests of only oligarchs, I’m positive a social explosion will be inevitable. Judge by yourself: the income gap between the rich and the poor is growing, Trade Unions are servile and integrated into the vertical of power, the opposition is oppressed and rightless. Thus, there are all prerequisites for a social outburst.

– Would you like to invite leaders of our state to the theater to watch “The Arena of Life”?

– I will not do this. They prefer to visit their favorite theaters and promote them. If they really wanted, they could have come without any invitation and we have a lot for them to see.

By Yelena KARAKOLEVA

 
 
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