Reviews, Stage, Theatre

Postcard from Adelaide Festival: text-based theatre reviews

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Humphrey Bower reviews intimate, text-based theatre from the Adelaide Festival  (February 28-March 15, 2019):

Bertrand Lesca/Nasi Voutsas’ Palmyra

Brian Lipson/Gideon Obarzanek’s, Two Jews Walk into a Theatre

Traverse Theatre Company’s, Ulster America

Teatro Nacional D. Maria II,’s By Heart

Bagryana Popov/La Mama’s Uncle Vanya

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As mentioned in my previous Postcard from Adelaide, the social and political themes of masculinity, racism, tribalism, displacement and exile that dominated the larger-scale, more ‘epic’ text-based shows at AF were also ‘reprised’ in the smaller-scale, more intimate works, alongside the more familial and personal themes of death, loss, trauma and memory, as well as the nature of theatre itself.

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The most provocative show I saw at AF was Palmyra, a duet created and performed by Bertrand Lesca and Nasi Voutsas (pictured above), which premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2017. The duo have been working together since 2015; this is their second work together. Lesca is a French theatre maker who trained in the UK, and Voutsas is a Greek Londoner; but their cultural background is not really important to the show; although on the night I saw it, Lesca’s Frenchness became part of the game; and despite his Cockney accent there was something about Voutsas’s dark complexion and beard that underscored his underdog status in relation to Lesca – especially given the title of the show.

Palmyra is the ancient city in Syria that was occupied by Islamic State, who destroyed its cultural monuments and staged executions in its amphitheatre, footage of which they posted online. When the city was recaptured by Syrian government forces (backed by Russian air-strikes), a concert by the Mariinsky Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Gergiev (a former chief conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra and a well-known supporter of Vladimir Putin) was held in the amphitheatre in front of an audience of Russian soldiers, government ministers and journalists.

It’s an excruciating masterclass in the art of political psychology and particularly the tactics of micro-aggression.

The concert was broadcast on Russian state television, and intercut with footage of Syrian and Russian forces recapturing the city. Gergiev announced the concert as ‘an appeal for everyone to come and work together against terrorism’ and ‘a protest against barbarians on this great stage’, but it was widely seen as a propaganda exercise by the Russian and Syrian governments.

None of this is directly referred to in the show. The dialogue appears to be improvised, and mostly consists of ‘open scenes’, the content of which is ambiguous, and relies heavily on subtext. The actors use their own names, and the action takes place on a bare stage. Furniture and props consist of a chair, a couple of skateboards, a plate, a ladder, a hammer, some cardboard boxes containing what looks like rubble from other plates that have been smashed, and two brooms.

There’s also a sound-desk with a MacBook, on which the actors play various tracks during the show, ranging from Handel’s Lascia ch’io pianga to Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald singing Cole Porter’s Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off, with a haunting use of God Only Knows by The Beach Boys (the a cappella version) at the end of the show.

Palmyra is a clown routine gone wrong; just how wrong probably varies from night to night. Its modern antecedents include Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, Brecht’s ‘learning plays’, Absurdist theatre, Pinter’s ‘comedies of menace’, Grotowski’s ‘poor theatre’, Boal’s ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’, theatre games, and a peculiarly English form of ‘post-dramatic’ theatre exemplified by the work of Tim Etchells and Forced Entertainment.

Despite its origins in clowning however, there’s nothing funny, ‘entertaining’ or even particularly enjoyable about Palmyra. In fact, it’s about as far as possible from being what Brecht called ‘culinary’ theatre; instead it’s an excruciating masterclass in the art of political psychology and particularly the tactics of micro-aggression.

Lesca teases, mocks, patronises, humiliates and torments Voutsas, using overt bullying and covert manipulation in the form of insinuation, denial and ‘gaslighting’ in order to drive him to rage and despair, all the while seeking complicity and even collaboration with the audience.

On one level, he’s a classic ‘older brother’ or school bully; on a more sinister level, he’s an abusive partner or criminal psychopath like Pinky in Brighton Rock or Alex in Clockwork Orange; on perhaps the most dangerous level of all, he’s a populist demagogue. To me he was the embodiment what Chaucer called ‘the smiler with the knife under the cloak’ – the sneering oppressor whose avatar sits in the White House today.

Voutsas (or ‘Nasi’ as Lesca repeatedly calls him) on the other hand is downtrodden, implosive and unpredictable – in other words, the classic victim of bullying or abuse, but also the embodiment of the oppressed and excluded ‘Other’ whom we alternately pity and fear, depending on how close he gets to us – or Lesca. When he threatens the latter with the hammer, we are genuinely worried; when Lesca persuades him to hand it over, and then gives it to someone in the audience to hide, we are partially relieved; when Voutsas asks them to give it back, we get worried again; and when Lesca asks them to come down from the safety of the auditorium, cross the stage, leave the theatre and give it to front-of-house, we get even more worried.

I found Palmyra a deeply unsettling night at the theatre, and a bold act of Festival programming.

The night I saw it, audience members were variously tricked into complicity, refused to obey instructions, objected to what was going on or even heckled aggressively.

A fiendishly clever sequence unfolded when Lesca bragged about his perfect English and someone in the audience pointed out his French accent. He used this to flirt with another member of the audience about meeting him in Paris, and lured someone else into flaunting their knowledge of French poetry. At this point he went to the sound desk and played Lascia ch’io pianga again, before pointing to Voutsas and saying: ‘He doesn’t understand.’* He then added: ‘We don’t want him here. We want him to leave.’ This had people calling out nobly, ‘No, we don’t! It’s not true!’ Someone else called out somewhat more ominously: ‘Give him the hammer!’

I found Palmyra a deeply unsettling night at the theatre, and a bold act of Festival programming. It spoke to me about masculinity, racism, tribalism, oppression and the origins of terrorism (state-sanctioned and otherwise) – not by invoking familiar sociological categories like gender, race, religion or class but more fundamental psychological structures like narcissism, rivalry, identification and co-dependency.

As the sublime harmonies of Carl and Brian Wilson echoed at the end of the show, while Voutsas lay on his skateboard spinning alone on a stage littered with broken plates like the ruins of an ancient city:

I may not always love you
But long as there are stars above you
You never need to doubt it
I’ll make you so sure about it
God only knows what I’d be without you

*

Two Jews Walk Into A Theatre is another semi-improvised duet like Palmyra; but it takes a more meta-theatrical form. It’s also a lot funnier – and (despite some ups and downs) more compassionate and ultimately forgiving.

Actor, director, designer and writer Brian Lipson has been conducting his role-playing ‘experiments’ (I’m borrowing the term from the play itself) for many years (perhaps most memorably for me as the anti-Semitic eugenicist Galton in A Large Attendance in the Antichamber). Two Jews is the one of the fruits of a Creative Fellowship from the Australia Council in 2011 during which Brian asked a series of kindred spirits to work with him.

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Co-devisor and co-performer Gideon Obarzanek has been conducting similar experiments on a more formal level at the interface of dance and theatre as a choreographer and director, both as a founding artistic director of Chunky Move, and as a freelancer since. In this case, the show is directed and choreographed by Obarzanek’s partner Lucy Guerin (the two co-directed and co-choreographed Attractor in 2017 reviewed in a Postcard from Perth Festival last year).

As with Palmyra, much of the comedy (and dramatic conflict) proceeds from what Freud called ‘the narcissism of small differences’.

Basically, the conceit is that Lipson and Obarzanek play their own fathers, in an imaginary meeting between the two while waiting in the foyer for their sons to do the show. For the first part of the show, they sit side by side onstage in front of the curtain on stools (which indeed resemble the stools in the actual theatre foyer); on the floor in front of them are sheets of butcher’s paper with handwritten topics of dialogue as if from a creative development rehearsal room, which they refer to when necessary.

As with Palmyra, much of the comedy (and dramatic conflict) proceeds from what Freud called ‘the narcissism of small differences’. Brian’s father Laurence was a London Jew whose family emigrated to England before the Second World War; Gideon’s father Zenek is a first-generation Polish-Australian whose parents were post-war refugees from the Holocaust and communism.

Politically the two are at loggerheads: Laurence is a liberal who is critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, as well as Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers; Zenek is more conservative both in his support for Israel and his opposition to ‘queue jumpers’. This leads to heated (and sometimes hilarious) arguments, culminating in Laurence calling Zenek a ‘Nazi’.

On the other hand, the two have much in common on a more personal level: both are somewhat mystified and exasperated by their sons’ respective careers in ‘experimental theatre’ and contemporary dance; both had difficult relationships with their own fathers; and both, it finally turns out, have faced (or are facing) a date with destiny in terms of their own mortality.

I’m reluctant to say too much about this, except that there was a happy coincidence with Laurence’s anecdote at the start of the show about the fact that the final destination of the bus he caught to the theatre in Norwood was called ‘Paradise Interchange’.

There was a touching vulnerability about both performers taking it in turns to be out of their comfort zones.

At this point, the two fathers agree that it’s time for them to ‘go in’. This leads to a beautiful transition from theatre to dance – as well as in the mood, aesthetic and use of the stage itself. I’m reluctant to say too much about this either, except that it involved a wonderful use of the curtain, as well as finely judged contributions from Guerin as choreographer, lighting designer Bosco Shaw and composer Oren Ambarchi.

There was a kind of rhetorical chiasmus in this final section of the show, with both performers now moving instead of speaking, and Brian in the less familiar role of dancer (as opposed to Gideon being in the less familiar role of actor in the first part of the show). In both cases, there was a touching vulnerability about both performers taking it in turns to be out of their comfort zones. I was also struck by how movement as opposed to language had the effect of erasing a layer of identity and reducing things to the anonymity and freedom of the body. The distinction between roles and performers, or fathers and sons, became movingly (in both senses) blurred.

For me, there was a psychological and political message in this as well. As a Jew myself – whose own father was a refugee from Nazism as well as being a political progressive, who had by his own account a wonderful relationship with his own father, and who was always generous about my own artistic proclivities – I saw the ending of the show as an image of reconciliation, with each other and ourselves, ‘Jews’ and ‘non-Jews’ alike.

It reminded me of the saying ‘Next year in Jerusalem’, which is spoken or sung at the end of Seder to mark the beginning of Passover. The phrase can of course be interpreted literally, but also symbolically as a statement about the shared experience of ‘living in exile’ – whatever that means. In this sense, ‘Jerusalem’ is not a literal place, but a state of being. To truly ‘be’ in Jerusalem is not to go somewhere or claim something as one’s exclusive birthright, but to let go of divisive notions of identity and be reconciled with one’s past.

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This leads me to the maelstrom of identity politics unleashed by Ulster American. Written by Belfast-born playwright David Ireland, and directed by Gareth Nicholls for the Traverse Theatre, the play (and production) was first performed at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2018.

As staged in the Dunstan Playhouse (and putatively bound for the West End), it’s not as obviously ‘intimate’ as the other works discussed in this Postcard, but I could imagine it being so in its original incarnation at the Traverse – and perhaps all the more hard-hitting up close as a result.

Compared to the rest of the Festival, in terms of dramatic form Ulster American is a relatively straightforward satirical one-act three-hander. In terms of content, though, it’s as explosive as much recent ‘Irish’ playwriting – most obviously the black comedies of Martin McDonagh.

I put ‘Irish’ in quotes because McDonagh was actually born in London to Irish parents – a distinction relevant to Ulster American, which also asks what it means to be ‘Irish’ or an ‘Irish playwright’, as well as making fun of the question itself, along with the gesture of putting things ‘in quotes’. In fact the play satirises just about every conceivable position – which in turn exposes it to attack from just about every conceivable direction, most obviously in terms of gender politics.

The play is at its most provocative when it comes to satirising #MeToo.

The scenario is a meeting in a serviced apartment (an appropriately functional set design by Becky Minto) between three ‘creatives’: an English theatre director, Leigh (Robert Jack); a grizzled Hollywood actor, Jay (Darrell D’Silva); and an up-and-coming Northern Irish playwright, Ruth (Lucianne McEvoy). Leigh and Ruth are having their first meeting with Jay, whose commercial weight they are hoping to lend to a West End transfer of Ruth’s new play (set in Northern Ireland).

Leigh (in the funniest and most detailed performance of the night from Jack as a Basil Fawlty-style neurotic) poses as a socially and politically progressive feminist and Remainer, but is revealed as a spineless hypocrite and ruthless careerist. Jay (a more broad-brushstroke caricature from D’Silva) promotes himself as a self-aware AA-member who ‘loves women so much he wishes he could be one’ and wants to get in touch with his Irish roots, but is actually an overbearing narcissist with no understanding at all of AA, feminism or Irish politics.

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Both men are also exposed as patronising and controlling in relation to Ruth, who is the most complex character of the three (and given a more realistic performance by McEvoy – at least until the crazed dénouement). As well as being a fan of Jay, she is also hoping for an entry to Hollywood; and her politics and tactics are also more nuanced (and ultimately vicious) than either of the other two. However, she is also the target of Ireland’s satire, especially when she takes matters into her own hands and resorts first to social media and then physical violence in order to get what she wants, or failing that to exact appropriate revenge.

There was something safely straight, white and middle-class (or even more narrowly, ‘creative-class’) about the content.

Leigh and Jay are easy targets, but Ruth is a more interesting figure, and the play is at its most provocative when it comes to satirising #MeToo – as well as in the hypothetical discussion of rape that becomes the dramatic hinge for the plot. The latter appears to be the element of the play that has generated the most offence – at least in terms of its comic handling – especially among critics in the UK.

For me, the writing, performances and production were all highly skilful and for the most part hugely enjoyable. However, the form of the play as a whole remained somewhat tame, and felt like the slightly prolonged set-up for a comedy of manners, at least until the carnivalesque and almost Bacchic descent into something more physical and primal at the climax of the show.

This seemed to me to be getting at the roots of what identity politics and even certain aspects of #Me Too are really about. It made me want to see the curtain come down over the whole bloody mess, and then come up again for a much more interesting and unpredictable Act Two. There was also something safely straight, white and middle-class (or even more narrowly, ‘creative-class’) about the content: putting the issues of sexuality, class and especially race onto the stage would I felt have made the play much more provocative (here a queer black theatre work like Slave Play– reviewed in a previous Postcard – is far more of a game-changer, as well as in its much more sophisticated recursive form).

Ireland writes in the program note that like Ruth he grew up in Belfast during the Troubles, and that ‘it sometimes feels like the whole world is becoming like Northern Ireland in the ’80s and ’90s. I didn’t grow up in Northern Ireland (though I did live in the UK during some of those years of unravelling), but I share his impression that we now live in a time of crisis when ‘things fall apart’ and ‘the centre no longer holds’. Theatre is an ideal forum in which to explore and experiment with the consequences of this – as it always has been, from the Greeks to Shakespeare and beyond.

Let’s not be afraid to go there.

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By Heart is written and performed by Tiago Rodriguez, the current artistic director of Teatro Nacional D. Maria II in Lisbon. In Adelaide ,it was staged in repertory with Two Jews Walk Into A Theatre at the Odeon, an old Art Deco cinema (and now home to the Australian Dance Theatre) in the leafy inner-eastern suburb of Norwood. Like Two Jews it’s a memory-play; like Palmyra it’s an interactive and even participatory work that touches on themes of tyranny and oppression, but it does so in a much more complex, gentle and intimate way.

In fact, the form and function of By Heart (as its title suggests) is literally one of aide-mémoire. Rodriguez invites ten volunteers from the audience to join him onstage and learn ‘by heart’ Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30 about the consolation of memory (‘When to the sessions of sweet silent thought / I summon up remembrance of things past…’).

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Rodriguez explains that he was inspired by an interview on Dutch television with literary critic George Steiner called ‘Of Beauty and Consolation’. Steiner begins with the claim that ‘memory is who we are’ and adds that ‘the bastards can’t take that away from us’. He tells the story of the Jew in the concentration camp who had memorised the Pentateuch and sections of the Talmud, and who invited his fellow inmates to ‘read me’. Steiner compares this ‘parable’ with the passage from Ezekiel about God commanding the prophet to eat the scroll containing ‘words of lament’ that ‘tasted as sweet as honey’ and to then recite the words to the people of Israel.

Rodriguez’s play is as much about memory and identity as it is about history or politics.

He then recounts an anecdote about Boris Pasternak refusing to speak in praise of Stalin at a Soviet Writer’s Congress in 1937 ‘bang in the middle of the Great Purge’. Pasternak was begged by his friends to speak out, as he would be arrested and killed whether he said something or not. In response, Pasternak stood up and spoke a number – ‘thirty’ – in response to which two thousand people stood up and recited Pasternak’s translation of the sonnet, with the result that he was neither arrested nor killed. (In fact, a woman sitting beside me in the audience who knew Russian told me afterwards that Pasternak’s translation of the sonnet was the most well-known poem in Russian after ‘Tatyana’s Letter’ from Pushkin’s Yevgeny Onegin.)**

Finally Steiner refers to Nadezhda Mandelstam memorising her husband’s poems and teaching each poem to a circle of ten people, each of whom taught another ten people, and so on – which is obviously the inspiration for Rodriguez’s choice of ten audience members. (As my Russian-speaking neighbour informed me afterwards, ‘nadezhda’ also means ‘hope’ in Russian, so that the titles of her two-volume memoirs Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned can also be translated as ‘Nadezhda Against Nadezhda’ and ‘Nadezhda Abandoned’.)***

Steiner’s interview (and Rodriguez’s play) is as much about memory and identity as it is about history or politics. Indeed the emotional core of the play is another story, about Rodriguez’s grandmother Candida, who began losing her sight in the last years of her life, and asked her grandson to stop giving her books for her birthday, but instead to choose one work for her to commit to memory before losing her sight completely so that she could continue to ‘read’ it until she died. This was of course Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30 (translated into Portuguese). (Rodriguez doesn’t mention the fact that his grandmother would also have lived through the Salazar dictatorship, but perhaps her story – and even her choice of sonnet – has a political meaning as well.)

For me, By Heart was neither a sentimental fable nor an intellectual exercise but an act of defiance.

Rodriguez interweaves this story and the interview with Steiner (which he himself has memorised) with the task of teaching the sonnet (which he has also memorised) to the ten audience members, who are seated in a line onstage like a conductor with a choir – the first four lines collectively, and then individually line by line. He also hands out books from a cardboard box, from which he recites passages (also memorized) – including a memorable episode from Ray Bradbury’s sci-fi dystopia Fahrenheit 451 about an old woman being immolated along with her library

This might all sound somewhat dry and literary, but Rodriguez’s ingenious staging, infectious enthusiasm and sense of humour – together with the comedy and drama of watching the volunteers complete their task – made for a highly entertaining and deeply moving 90 minutes of theatre (Rodriguez announces that the exact length of the show depends on the volunteers).

A coup occurred when he produced a box of communion-like wafers prepared by a Lisbon baker with the words of the sonnet inscribed on them in edible ink, and asked the volunteers to eat them, Ezekiel-like, bit by bit, leaving the fragment with their own line till last.

When he described the scene of the blind Candida on her deathbed speaking the sonnet in its entirety for the last time, and then asked the volunteers to do likewise in a final collective recitation, the suspense was palpable; and when he ended the show by reciting the sonnet himself in Portuguese (as his grandmother would have done) and then exiting the stage, there was scarcely a dry eye in the house.

Ultimately however for me, By Heart was neither a sentimental fable nor an intellectual exercise but an act of defiance – not just against totalitarianism, nor even (like Shakespeare’s sonnets) against time itself, but against the more imperceptible forms of domination, erasure and ‘repressive desublimation’ facilitated by digital technology.****

Learning things by heart is essential to theatre itself. As Steiner says: the bastards can’t take that away from us. Long may it continue.

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Perhaps paradoxically (given its scale and the size of the cast) the most intimate work I saw in AF 2019 was Bagryana Popov’s site-specific, immersive production of Uncle Vanya for Melbourne’s La Mama.

Performed over two days and nights at a rural location for a small audience of 40 people, each act commences at approximately the time of day or night indicated in the play. Previously ‘staged’ – if that’s the right word – at a country house on a sheep station near Daylesford in Victoria and at Arthur Boyd’s former property Bundanon on the Shoalhaven River in New South Wales, here it was at the painter Hans Heysen’s former home The Cedars near Hahndorf in the Adelaide hills. I chose to stay overnight at the Old Mill Hotel in Hahndorf, about half an hour’s walk to the property.

Between the acts, it was possible to observe and even interact with the characters; there were also guided activities, including a Welcome to Country and talk by a local elder on the Indigenous understanding of the area, a guided walk with local ecologists, an introduction to the house and its history by a Heysen family member, and an artistic tour of the house and Heysen’s studio by a local artist.

I’ve never experienced so directly the sense of place and time that is so crucial to the play.

I found the whole package a richly rewarding experience, and cumulatively effective and affecting over the course of the four acts and two days. The Cedars is an extraordinarily beautiful place – both Heysen’s classic Arts and Crafts house and garden and the surrounding landscape – and there was something about the old and slightly dilapidated furnishings, the sense of family history and a certain air of eccentric monomania that suited the play perfectly. Like Two Jews and By Heart (not to mention Chekov’s subsequent masterpieces Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard) Vanya is also a memory-play – haunted by the dead, together with the sense of loss, blame, guilt and responsibility they leave behind.

Act One took place around a table in the garden; Act Two moved from room to room around the house later that night; Act Three occupied the living room the following afternoon; and Act Four began outside the house and ended up back inside as evening closed in again.

I’ve never experienced so directly the sense of place and time that is so crucial to the play. Astrov’s concern for the local flora and fauna had never seemed so real; the Professor’s proposal to sell the property – and Vanya’s reaction – in Act Three had never seemed so devastating or painful; all the more the case as we had listened to Heysen’s grandson in the same living room the previous day talk to us about forgoing his inheritance in order to pay for the upkeep of the house.

I found myself longing to stay overnight, and have the play unfold around me continuously over 24 hours.

My favourite moments however occurred when encountering or observing ‘offstage’ events, between or during the acts: going outside to explore the garden at the end of Act Three and coming across Astrov searching for Vanya; or glancing through a window from inside the house during Act Four to see Sonia walk Astrov to his car and then watch him drive away.

These moments of private experience were almost like being in a film or a dream, and were wonderful instances of what immersive and durational performances are uniquely capable of delivering. In fact, I found myself longing to stay overnight, and have the play unfold around me continuously over 24 hours. The guided activities enhanced the production, but I could happily have enjoyed them before the play commenced, and then experienced it uninterrupted.

Even if some of the transitions were a little awkward – and some of the performances a little uneven – I was progressively and persuasively caught up and carried along by the (very Chekhovian) sense that the cast had been collectively inhabiting and reliving the play (albeit in various settings) over the past three years. My own sense of ‘enduring’ and ‘living through’ something communally with them continued long after I had left the property and gone back to my little hotel room in Hahndorf.

The task of enduring and ‘living on’ is of course a central concern in Chekhov; and learning to do so by ‘living with’ each other (and ourselves) is perhaps one of his deepest lessons.

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NOTES

* The words of Handel’s aria, translated into English, are:

Let me weep over

My cruel fate
And let me sigh

For liberty

May sorrow shatter

These chains of my torments

Just out of pity

** In fact, a somewhat different version of the story is told by the British diplomat Max Heyward (who subsequently translated Doctor Zhivago as well as Nadezhda Mandelstam’s memoirs into English). According to Heyward the event took place at a reading by twenty Russian poets (at which Heyward was present) on the theme ‘Down With The Warmongers’ which was staged at the Moscow Polytechnic in 1948 in retaliation to Churchill’s ‘Iron Curtain’ speech. Pasternak arrived late, announced that he had written nothing for the occasion, and then began reciting a series of his most popular poems, until someone in the audience called out for his translation of Sonnet 66 (‘Tired with all these, for restful death I cry’) – a much more telling and world-weary denunciation of corruption, injustice and tyranny than Sonnet 30’s paean to memory, especially in its reference to ‘Art made tongue-tied by authority’. The convener of the reading immediately rang the bell to wind things up before Pasternak could recite the poem in its entirety.

According to Heyward, anyone other than Pasternak would have been arrested and killed for this act of insubordination. Pasternak enjoyed special ‘protected’ status from the notoriously perverse Stalin, despite what Olga Ivinskaya in her memoir A Captive of Time (also translated by Heyward) called the ‘silent duel’ between them. Stalin called Pasternak a ‘holy fool’, tormented him by arresting and deporting his friends (including Mandelstam and Ivinskaya) and even mocked him for not speaking out on behalf of Mandelstam, who died in a ‘correction camp’ in 1938.

Of the two versions of the story, Heyward’s seems more likely (indeed Heywood is probably the source of Steiner’s anecdotes). There was in fact no Soviet Writer’s Congress in 1937; the first was in 1932 (before the Great Purge), and the second in 1954 (after Stalin’s death). Moreover there’s no evidence of Pasternak ever having translated Sonnet 30, whereas he certainly did translate Sonnets 66, 73 and 84; the translation of 66 occurred in 1938 (i.e. during the Great Purge) around the time of his translation of Hamlet; and the content of the sonnet is clearly related to the play (in particular Hamlet’s soliloquy ‘To be or not to be’), with which Pasternak had a special affinity (he also wrote a famous poem about Hamlet which was included in Doctor Zhivago). Sonnet 66 is also alleged to be the most frequently translated of all Shakespeare’s sonnets into Russian; and perhaps it was this sonnet that my Russian-speaking neighbour was alluding to.

The point here is not to tax Steiner or Rodriguez with inaccuracy but rather to clarify the purpose of the story in each case. Steiner’s is a (perhaps somewhat idealised) anecdote about the power of memory to resist tyranny; Heyward’s is a (perhaps more realistic) account of the relationship between poet and tyrant (and crucially concerns a sonnet with a much more political edge).

*** The story of the ‘circle of ten’ is in fact told of Anna Akhmatova and her friend Lydia Chukovskaya in Chukovskaya’s memoirs (and forms the basis for Alma De Groen’s play, The Woman in the Window). As far as Mandelstam is concerned: according to Nadezhda in Hope Against Hope it was she who alone memorised his poems and then had them transcribed and smuggled out of Russia. Once again, the play is about memory rather than accuracy – but it’s important not to forget or minimise the role of women in both stories (which is precisely the point of De Groen’s play).

**** ‘Repressive desublimation’ is the term used by the Frankfurt School theorist Herbert Marcuse to describe the way consumer capitalism keeps us in check through the instantaneous gratification of desires. First described in his 1964 book One-Dimensional Man, it anticipates and perfectly describes the effects of digital technology.

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