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The Times (UK)
January 20, 2003, Monday
Chekhov's children
An Exciting New Generation of Russia Playwrights Is Coming Here
By Patrick Marmion

Ask almost anyone to name a Russian playwright and they probably won't make it past Chekhov. He died almost a century ago, and since then the West has heard almost nothing from Russian stage writers. Their fame lies buried beneath the cultural glaciers of the 20th century's big totalitarian chill. Now, though, a new wave of Russian writers is emerging, and three of them are coming to Britain, to the Royal Court. Naturally, times have changed since Chekhov, so no one should expect a continuation of Chekhov's anguished tragicomedies. The new generation, represented here by Vassily Sigarev and the brothers Oleg and Vladimir Presnyakov, are masters not of provincial ennui, but of urban catastrophe.

The best known over here since winning the Evening Standard's Most Promising Playwright award last year for Plasticine, his play on urban despair, is the 25-year-old Sigarev. He also won the Russian "Anti-Booker" prize for the play, an award reserved for home-grown talent. Now lodging in Chelsea for the staging of his play Black Milk, Sigarev comes from a working-class family in Verkhnyaya Salda, a bleak industrial town in the foothills of the Urals.

Seven years ago the town was caught in an overnight gold rush. "People realised they could make $ 100 a day selling titanium from the scrap-heap of the town's metal plant," explains Sigarev, speaking through his interpreter and translator, Sasha Dugdale. "Suddenly everyone had a lot of money and nothing to spend it on. Immediately drugs arrived and everyone started injecting themselves. Then an Aids epidemic started. But when the money and titanium was exhausted, the drugs remained." Such was the gloomy background to Plasticine.

Sigarev survived after taking up writing under his mentor, the playwright Nikolai Kolyada, and his new comedy, Black Milk, is about a young Muscovite couple stranded in a grim rural railway station, harangued by provincial low-lifes. Sigarev acknowledges that there is some symbolism about the scenario. "It is a hole," he says, "a hole in the very literal sense - a black hole." But quite unlike the work of the more didactic Presnyakov brothers, Sigarev is vehement that there is no political purpose behind his writing. He probably speaks for many Russians when he expresses his contempt for politics and politicians.

"I am not interested in politics and never will be. Official politics doesn't change anything or have any effect. Everything happens between people, and politics is just a form of theatre. It affects nothing except perhaps wealth. Not even wars. It's not within the power of politicians to start or finish wars. My profession is to make people laugh and cry and affect their feelings and their emotions."

He also shrugs off any literary influences ("more interesting things happen in life than in books," he says). Nonetheless, he casts himself in the tradition of Chekhov, who also wrote about provincial life during a time of great social upheaval. There is even something of Chekhov's melancholy Romanticism in Sigarev's artistic philosophy. "I want to produce stories about people who have a very difficult or thorny path towards the light," he says.

No such Romanticism is evident in the Presnyakov brothers' sinister play, Terrorism, which follows Black Milk at the Royal Court. Terrorism originally opened at the Moscow Arts Theatre a week after the Chechen rebel siege in another Moscow theatre last year. The timing was fortuitous, but no less prescient. It is a sort of La Ronde in which the casual brutality of everyday life is anatomised as a paradigm for terrorism. The play is a dark, cleverly turned satire revealing a self-fulfilling cycle of nationalism, corruption, indolence and racism.

Unlike Sigarev, the brothers Oleg, 33, and Vladimir, 28, do not fight shy of a didactic tone. Half Russian and half Iranian, they enjoy intellectual jousting. Until recently they taught literary theory and psychology in Ekaterinburg, where they set up the Gorky Urals State University's Youth Theatre. The reasons they give for writing the play are as pedagogical as a bulletin from the Politburo. "We feel a certain atmosphere in our society and universally, one of fear, tension, desperation," they say. "We are all immersed in this atmosphere and so we created a text about people trying to live in this atmosphere. It reflects the time and coincides with it."

What Sigarev and the brothers Presnyakov do have in common is a recognition that they are participating in a Russian renaissance. Sigarev has written ten plays to date and says there are currently 40 productions of his plays between the Pacific coast and Belarus. The Presnyakovs attribute this resurgence of interest in new writing to a demand for more contemporary concerns among Russian theatregoers.

"In art," say the Presnyakovs, "the older generation's concerns are much better represented, and the younger generation are still trying to break through."

However, the brothers are sober about the possibilities that life in Russia now affords. But few would deny that this is a time of tectonic shift in Russian society. Sigarev says he is not sure that much has changed in people's minds and hearts. "But Russia is a good place for change," he says. "It's a new epoch. A new age with greater freedom. It's an interesting time and a very difficult time.

"It's Russians' luck to be alive at this time because if the road is always flat, you risk falling asleep. But that's impossible when there's so much variation. If everything is ending in America, everything is beginning in Russia."

Black Milk runs from January 31 to March 1, and Terrorism from March 10 to 29, at the Royal Court, London SW1 (020-7565 5000)

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