Amid the atrocities, art worth living for
April 6, 2009
THE terror unleashed by Stalin on the people of the Soviet Union is one of
the worst tyrannies of the blood-soaked 20th century, killing an estimated
20 million people and sending millions more to the Gulag prison camps.
Yet the scale of the persecution remains relatively unknown in the West,
which is why playwright Paul Galloway sees it as great material for drama.
"It's almost too big to put on stage, so I decided to use the microcosm of a
group of actors preparing a play to celebrate Stalin's 60th birthday, in
1939," he explains.
The result is Realism, which has its world premiere at the Melbourne Theatre
Company's Sumner Theatre on Thursday starring English actor Miriam
One of the play's inspirations is the persecution of theatre director
Vsevolod Meyerhold, which eventually resulted in his torture and execution
in 1940, after the brutal murder of his wife, Zinaida Raikh, the previous
year. Perhaps surprisingly, Galloway has written a comedy, although he warns
it does not remain light-hearted all the way through.
"The potential for comedy comes with a group under pressure," he says.
"After all, a boulevard farce is about the risk of being caught carrying on
in an illicit bedroom."
In Realism, the characters try to rehearse the Stalin play, Man of Steel,
and ignore the risk of being arrested and sent to the Gulag for something as
insignificant as a slip of the tongue.
"Anxiety increases in the second half, but the comedy never goes away
completely. It just gets stripped back."
Galloway says the fate of Meyerhold and his wife demonstrates the unlimited
scope of Stalin's terror. "The couple were the Soviet equivalent of Laurence
Olivier and Vivien Leigh, or of Brangelina today."
In Anna Akhmatova's acclaimed poem, Requiem, about the suffering under
Stalin, she proposes building a monument outside the prison holding her son,
"where I stood for 300 hours/ And where they never, never opened the doors
for me/ Lest in blessed death I should forget/ The grinding scream of the
Black Marias,/ The hideous clanging gate, the old/ Woman wailing like a
Galloway says that life under Stalin was worse in some ways than under
Hitler. "I don't mean to compare it to the Holocaust, because if you were a
Jew under Hitler you were in dire trouble. But everyone else could get on
with their lives and ignore the Nazis if they wanted to."
No one had that choice under Stalin. "The terror at its height in 1938
affected everyone. Between 1929 and Stalin's death in 1953, 18 million
people were imprisoned."
One writer touring the cells where prisoners were held before being
transported to the Gulag camps found the most frequent graffiti on the walls
was the single word, "Why?".
Everybody had to be in step in pursuit of a series of government five-year
plans under Stalin. "That means it is easy to see who is out of step. And
Meyerhold hated Stalin's social realism with a passion."
Galloway says that art is not worth dying for, quoting the doomed Soviet
poet, Osip Mandelstam: "The Soviets love poetry so much they will kill you
But he says the need for some people to create art in extraordinary
conditions is incorrigible. "Theatre is not worth dying for, but it is one
of the things worth living for."
Galloway began considering a play set in Stalin's Moscow while living in
Brisbane in 2000. But it took another four years before he started writing,
after moving to Melbourne to work for the MTC, where he is now literary
In 2006 he entered the script in the Patrick White playwriting competition,
which brought it to the attention of the Sydney Theatre Company's then
director, Robyn Nevin, who discovered Galloway worked for the MTC.
"It's odd that I work just outside the door of (the MTC's director) Simon
Phillips, but I would have been too embarrassed to show it to him. But he
read it after Sydney showed interest, and it became an MTC project. I think
the STC is still interested as well."
As part of his job, Galloway sits on the selection committee considering
plays for the MTC's next season, but he withdrew for a period because of the
"unbelievable" conflict of interest over Realism.
"I know I've made a jump most playwrights in town can only dream about. I am
very, very fortunate, but I have been assessing plays for a long time, and
I've been a professional writer for the past 15 years.
"I feel I have done my time rather than springing from the thigh of Zeus."
The script was offered to Margolyes in New York, where she was performing in
the Broadway production of Wicked, and she loved it. "She's the one selling
the tickets," Galloway says. "It's not my name doing that."
Preparation for actors gets physical
THE eight cast members preparing for the premiere of Realism, including
English star Miriam Margolyes, have undertaken "intense physical training"
for the past five weeks, on top of the rigors of rehearsing the first
production of a new play.
The training specialist, Nigel Poulton, who has worked with New York's
weapons specialist team on the Sopranos and Law and Order: Criminal Intent,
says the extra workload of three hours every day is necessary for the
training to be integrated into performance techniques.
"It's been tough on them because it has been a very heavy workload," he
The system, known as biomechanics, was developed by the pioneering Russian
director, Vsevold Meyerhold, over 20 years before he was executed by Stalin.
"It came out of an extraordinary period of exploration and invention in
Russian theatre," he says. "It was nearly lost after Meyerhold's execution
in 1940, and his collaborators and students were forced underground."
It requires actors to develop physical and vocal techniques underpinned by a
theory of movement, expression and gesture.
"I'm not interested in a fragment from a bygone era," Poulton says. "The
actors always appreciate it, and I expect to be still learning about it for
the next 10 years."
Realism opens at the Sumner Theatre on Thursday, until May 17. Go to
mtc.com.au or book on 8688 0888.
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