Noah Birksted-Breen on Contemporary Russian Theatre

The conditions are very tough for a young playwright; you can only hope that you get picked up by a really good TV series

Noah Birksted-Breen is a theatre director, writer and translator. After doing a Modern Languages degree at Oxford University, including one year at the St. Petersburg State University, he completed an MA in Playwriting at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London. In 2005 he co-founded Sputnik Theatre Company, which is dedicated to bringing contemporary Russian plays to the UK, and has so far produced five plays for his company. Sputnik also launched the first Russian Theatre Festival in the UK in 2010 with four new Russian-language plays translated into English and premiered at the Soho Theatre.  In 2006 Noah won the ITV Theatre Directors’ Award, working for a year and a half as resident director at Hampstead Theatre. He has translated plays by, among others, Oleg Bogaev, Yelena Gremina, Natalia Kolyada, Natalia Moshina, Yuri Klavdiev, and Yaroslava Pulinovich. 

Julia Sherwood, Asymptote’s editor-at-large for Slovakia, caught up with Noah in the middle of his commute between Oxford, where he’s in the final stages of his doctoral dissertation, and London, where he lives with his family.

JS: I first came across Sputnik back in 2005 or 2006, when I saw your brilliant production of Russian National Mail at the Old Red Lion theatre. How did you discover this play, what sparked your interest in contemporary Russian drama and how did Sputnik Theatre start? 

NBB: I started hearing that new Russian playwriting was vibrant and began to actively look into it. I was travelling to Russia a lot at that time in my job as a project manager for an NGO that was working in that region, so I could also attend plays.  Then, in 2005 I co-founded Sputnik with Leila Gray and started producing new Russian plays. Russian National Mail by Oleg Bogaev was our first production. Right now Sputnik consists of me and then different collaborators for each project. I also have a Board of Trustees—people who are quite big in the industry and they help out. Ideally, I’d like to have a Russian set designer to work with on a permanent basis, and money to commission Russian playwrights, but funding is a problem.

Over the past 3 or 4 years I haven’t produced any plays as I’ve been working on my doctorate—on contemporary Russian playwriting between 2000 and 2014, focusing on four specific theatre companies and their programming of new plays. However, it is a practice-based doctorate, and it includes a non-academic part, in cooperation with Plymouth’s Theatre Royal, so I was able to continue the work I’ve been doing with Sputnik and bring it to a larger theatre. In consultation with the artistic director, Simon Stokes, we identified four plays, which I translated. As it is very difficult to sell a new Russian play in the UK in general and even more so to a regional audience, rather than doing full productions we decided to do them as rehearsed readings at the Frontline Club in London. This was January 2016. The first play was Dr. by Yelena Isaeva, one of the longest running productions of teatr.doc, the renowned studio theatre in Moscow. It’s a surprising, sometimes shocking, often funny and moving play about contemporary medicine in rural Russia. Then we did Joan, by Yaroslava Pulinovich, which is a play about a self-made businesswoman who has made it to the top for all the wrong reasons, and about the ruthless business practices of 1990s Russia and its gangster capitalism. For the third play, Grandchildren: The Second Act, Alexandra Polivanova and Mikhail Kaluzhsky interviewed the grandchildren of prominent Stalinists, whose testimonies bear witness to the very human desire to forgive those we love, even when we know their worst crimes. And last but not least, Mikhail Durnenkov’s The War Has Not Yet Started depicts the dehumanising effects of living in a society on the brink of an all-out war. (videos of post-performance discussions can be viewed here, here, here and here).

JS: I managed to catch two of the plays at the Frontline Club: Joan and Grandchildren; both were excellent and very different.  Are you planning to publish these four plays and can we expect to see full productions of any of them?

NBB: I published two of the plays, Dr. and Grandchildren, in a bilingual edition, and have included all the footnotes so you can get a full experience of the text, if you’re interested. I published them through Sputnik, funded by the Translation Institute (Institut perevoda) in Moscow. As for full productions, the rehearsed readings were very well received and Simon Stokes really liked one of the plays, The War Has Not Yet Started. He decided to do a full production at the Theatre Royal in Plymouth in May 2016, directed by Michael Fentiman. He is more of an auteur director, adding his own images, rather than a typical new play director, where you’re tend to be quite faithful to the script. The result worked extremely successful—very theatrical and enjoyable—though it felt rather eclectic in places.  It’s very hard to get attention for a new Russian play so it was covered mostly by the local press, and by the Stage, the industry paper.

It was good to see how well Durnenkov’s play worked in Plymouth as artistic directors often assume that a contemporary Russian play can only be staged in a niche theatre like the Royal Court, or The Bush, or the Gate or some other theatre that specializes in contemporary plays. In fact, a play like Joan is actually quite a crowd pleaser and the Royal Court would not necessarily be interested whereas—I may be hopelessly idealistic here—I feel that it could actually be staged in a more mainstream theatre. It’s a sort of revenge drama, which asks big questions but at the same time it’s a very entertaining piece with a great deal of situational comedy. The problem is how to convince theatre managers—I spoke to a couple of directors and they felt it could only be staged if there was a star actor in the main role, because otherwise no-one is going to come and see a new Russian play. But if you got Helen McCrory it could be put on at the Old Vic, or the Young Vic [laughs].

JS: One of the plays you translated is by Natalia Kolyada, the co-founder of the renowned Belarus Free Theatre. Have you cooperated with them in other ways?

NBB: Yes, I have, since they are based in London. They’re a full-time company, funded by the Arts Council. They’re in an unusual position of being Belarusian and British at the same time.  Apart from translating Natalia’s play Dreams for the 2010 Russian play festival in London, I’ve been on their playwriting jury, although I don’t often manage to find the time, unfortunately. I’ve seen most of their plays here in London. My favourite production of theirs is Trash Cuisine, which was shown at the Young Vic in 2013. It’s a verbatim play about capital punishment. For me it sums up what is best about their work—it’s both effortlessly political and extremely playful.

JS: These plays and many others you’ve have translated documentary or verbatim. What are the challenges of translating this kind of work compared to traditional plays?

 NBB: Documentary theatre takes real-life testimony—from interviews or the public record—and weaves a story out of it. Translating documentary theatre is probably more difficult. You have to deal with the same issues but in a more exaggerated, amplified form. They contain a lot more casual turns of phrase, colloquialisms. Playwrights sometimes use the documentary form as an in-depth way of getting inside people‘s characters and a particular social environment, and it often points to quite specific, real-life prototypes, so it feels there’s a greater responsibility to make sure the real people are represented truthfully. Very few Russian documentary plays have been staged professionally in the UK, and part of the reason is that context is essential. It doesn’t work unless the audience gets all the references, but if you start adding explanations it just sounds terrible. In 2012, when Sputnik staged One Hour Eighteen Minutes, a play by Yelena Gremina about the death in custody of the anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky at the New Diorama Theatre, I adapted it with the playwright, using the fact that two of the characters have moved to London to make it more immediate for the UK public.

JS: You are now working with BBC Radio 3—what does this project involve?

 NBB: The BBC have become interested in new Russian plays, and for Sputnik this is an opportunity to bring these plays to a bigger audience.  The programme’s producer, Sasha Yevtushenko, modelled this project on a previous one he ran that featured three new plays from Scandinavia. In our project, all of the playwrights are from Russia, but the idea is similar: to introduce audiences to a broad spectrum of Russian drama. Radio 3 reaches mainstream audiences, so that feels like quite an achievement! Everyone loves Chekhov—but British audiences haven’t been offered the chance to experience the work of contemporary Russian playwrights, because most theatres and producers aren’t willing to commission it—it just feels too risky to them, or perhaps too culturally different.  With the producer, who will also direct the plays, we have identified nine playwrights and invited them to pitch ideas, and ended up commissioning three thirty-minute plays that will be broadcast together in October 2017.  We’ll be announcing details in late summer/early autumn—I’ll post them on the Sputnik website and email the Sputnik mailing list.

JS: Are there any particular places in Russia today producing cutting edge theatre?

NBB: One of the most vibrant theatre scenes is in the town of Yekaterinburg in the Urals, where this amazing guy Nikolai Kolyada is based. His theatre runs a playwriting course and publishes plays, and he is a very proactive supporter of young playwrights.

There’s nowhere else that’s quite as prolific as the Kolyada Theatre and, of course, teatr.doc and Praktika in Moscow.  Apart from Moscow and Yekaterinburg there are other small hubs, with certain individuals championing new writing. For example, there’s a very active literary manager in Perm, Il’ia Gubin, at the Young Persons’ Theatre. Young people’s theatres in Russia are often good—working with young writers is basically in their remit, and the plays are often set in the local area, which makes them interesting. There’s quite a lot happening with young playwrights on small stages in Russia, more than there was in 2000, but the challenge is that nobody is willing to pay for it. Russian theatres generally don’t commission new plays so that puts the onus on the playwright. Which is fine if you’re a first-time playwright—you understand that that’s the deal—but when it comes to writing your second or third play, you need someone to pay you to do that. The conditions are very tough for a young playwright; you can only hope that you get picked up by a really good TV series and then you work for them, and can also write a play in your spare time because you love doing it. That obviously narrows the field quite a lot.

JS: Are there any interesting traditional playwrights emerging who deserve attention and should be translated?

NBB: Joan, the play you saw last year at the Frontline Club, is probably a good example. The writer, Yaroslava Pulinovich, is from the younger generation and her plays are quite powerful and unconventional, but they still work well in a bigger venue: the Theatre of Nations in Moscow, the same place where Robert Lepage works when he’s in Russia. Joan is currently playing on that theatre’s main stage, with a film star in the title role. It started in a small studio stage for an audience of 250, and then it moved to the main theatre, an 800-seater, so it’s come into a very mainstream context. Nikolai Kolyada himself is a playwright; he is quite traditional but often uses unusual language, based on regional dialect. His plays work well in the Russian theatre. They give people something new compared with what they’re used to, but it would be very hard to produce his plays in the UK; they feel quite old-fashioned, although he’s very talented and it works well in the local context.

JS: To come back to documentary theatre, the biggest name is probably Yelena Gremina and her teatr.doc in Moscow.  In 2015 and 2016, they went through a very rough patch: under a lot of pressure from the authorities THEY were evicted more than once. I’ve just looked at their website and I counted about 30 different shows in January 2017 alone although, admittedly, they have two shows per night. How are they managing to keep afloat?

NBB: They have developed an interesting model of a devolved, decentralized theatre company. Although they still run a repertory system like most Russian theatres, each company takes responsibility for its own financing and productions. Since they don’t make any money, everyone has a second job: the playwrights write for TV, the actors work for a rep company and do a production at teatr.doc once a month. The company runs practically on a shoestring—they’ve got to pay the rent and run a website, and technically, they have one employee, and rely on voluntary work by the actors and directors.  And of course other people contribute small sums of money to help them along. It’s basically a crowd-funded theatre. Until 2012 they had some government funding, but they got a lot of heat after staging one play in particular, the one about Sergei Magnitsky. After that they lost state subsidies because of the changing cultural and political climate: in 2014 a presidential decree was issued saying culture must now serve and support the state; why should we subsidize someone who criticises us… So now even the small sums of money they used to raise are very hard to get.

But not all of teatr.doc plays are political. Apart from some overtly political ones, like The Bolotnaya Square Case or the play about Magnitsky, they also put on a range of plays that are rather tongue in cheek, irreverent, some quite experimental, some on historical subjects. It’s more a theatre of experimentation than a political theatre; they try to be unconventional, to do something different from mainstream theatre. But it’s the political plays get all the attention, although it’s only a small part of what they do.

JS: Coming back to your own work and Sputnik, what are your plans for the future?

NBB: Apart from the BBC Radio 3 plays, Sputnik is just embarking on a three-year partnership with Oxford University (2017-2019) to explore contemporary Russian plays through workshops and performances. The first event is a conference in Oxford in April 2017.  I would also love to direct two of the plays that were part of the rehearsed readings at the Frontline Club, in Sputnik: Joan and The War Has Not Yet Started. The fact that the latter has already been produced in Plymouth makes it more feasible, as there is a set of reviews to show to funders.  I think this play is good enough to have two or three productions—I’m now being ridiculously idealistic again…If a play is good, it can be done several times in different ways. And it’s a low cost production, all I need is to raise some funds, probably from the Arts Council, find three good actors and a professional studio theatre that will say:  OK, we’ll let you do it.  It’s really a question of raising the money. This is quite a critical time for Sputnik: I’ve done it twice before: once for the readings in 2010, I got a professional budget, and I also managed it for the 2012 production. But it’s never been harder for small companies, so I hope it will work.

JS: Thank you so much for your time, and good luck with your doctorate and future productions (and I hope you get Helen McCrory for Joan!).

Julia Sherwood was born and grew up in Bratislava, which was then part of Czechoslovakia. After working for Amnesty International for over 20 years, she became a freelance translator in 2008. Based in London, she is editor-at-large with Asymptote, the international journal of translation. Jointly with Peter Sherwood, she has translated into English books by Daniela Kapitáňová, Jana Juráňová, Peter Krištúfek and, most recently, Uršuľa Kovalyk’s The Equestrienne from the Slovak; and a novel by Petra Procházková from the Czech and Lullaby for a Hanged Man, a novella by Hubert Klimko-Dobrzaniecki from the Polish. She has also translated the latter into Slovak, as well as Tony Judt’s The Memory Chalet


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