Shukshin’s Stories

Vasiliy Shukshin
Theatre of Nations
Barbican Theatre
to

With the best request regarding switching off mobile phones I’ve yet heard—sadly not translated into English—we are invited to take a rest from technology. And it works! Dare I say, that’s an achievement for a Russian audience...

No technology could well apply to Vasiliy Shukshin’s (1929–1974) sitcom tales from the sixties and seventies told and shown simply but effectively, with much gentle melancholic humour, sunflower seed eating and husk spitting, in physical and slapstick Chaplinesque mime and silly satire, by a charming troupe of eight actors who seem to be enjoying it as much as the audience. Tales rounded off with vulgar village ditties (chastushki), and all on accordion for the curtain call.

It was during Khrushchev’s ‘Thaw’ that so-called village writers (derevenshchiki) took the ‘socialist’ out of Stalin’s prescribed ‘socialist realism’ with its optimistic heroes. Shukshin’s heroes and heroines are the ordinary folk carrying on with their lives as they always did, and will, whatever government is in power.

Simple lives, getting by, ticking organically whatever the regime, homespun peasant wisdom, wonder at progress, the differences between town and country, the new world and the old rub along somehow in Srotsky, Shukshin’s birthplace.

We step gently into the comical, unsophisticated world of village life in Russia, stereotypical patriarchal family relationships, men drinking, women working, outspoken old men and women, set in what feels like nineteenth century aspic (one gets a sense of that today in Russia’s remote villages) yet it is the Soviet period, for which there is some nostalgia.

The Moscow company visited the village where Monica Pormale photographed the locals, proud of their village son Shukshin (his portrait hangs behind one image of a mature village woman). These enlarged photographic portraits, of young and old, clinic personnel, fields of sunflowers, the wide sweep of the river, and a rundown Moscow block of flats, are the changing backdrop for the tales told on a bench running the width of the stage. The past and the present not so very different...

There’s the soppy "Stepan in Love" tale—how the diffident Styopa gets the girl with dogged persistence and his reluctant father as official matchmaker. A man blowing his hard-earned cash—enough for half a motor scooter his mates try to dissuade him—on a pair of white boots for his wife, which don't fit her, but make her happy—it’s the thought that counts—and he gets his just reward in bed. The scene in the shop with its haughty shop assistant is pure Gogol and Soviet mix, he caressing those white leather boots, quite unsuitable for the mud of the village, she scornful of a man like him in his baggy suit. Clothes maketh the man and woman.

Another tale rests on a man’s obsession with microbes and bacteria ever since he acquired a microscope at vast expense, telling his scold of a wife that he’s lost the money. The man who returns to visit his family after five years away with gifts from the city and a new wife only to find they are not impressed. The language is blunt, but the poignant story hides hurt feelings.

The scene in the clinic is the best. A patient (Mironov) falls for the glamorous doctor (Khamatova)—the contemporary girls in the photos look pretty glamorous, too, in their white coats. It’s her white coat that turns him on, and her warmed stethoscope. The other patients on the bench lean in as he woos her. He marries this divorcee and becomes her slave, does the laundry, cooking, only to be cuckolded in turn. In despair he chops off two fingers with an axe (an axe figures more than once), then philosophises himself into acceptance, at least he’s experienced a tempest. Now it’s just a hangover after a heavy drinking session.

Then there’s the lazy village husband who marries a woman in Moscow after demob, but he simply can't give up his easy-going village ways, drinking and dancing like a gypsy whilst his wife works her fingers down sewing for a living. But he does take the baby to the VDNKh (the famous Moscow Exhibition of Economic Achievement). He kills himself in the end—a fish out of water.

There’s the story of modern life realising the value of the past, young students coming to tape the songs, many forbidden in Soviet times (he played them all the same when no one from the Council was around), of a blind accordion player, songs of mothers waiting at the prison gate.

And another one of a prisoner jumping his prison sentence when there was only three months left to serve, because his longing for his village was unbearable. The policeman can’t understand how he could be so stupid, as now he’ll get another two years. But he’s fine with that, at least he’s been home, he’s refreshed… And in any case, they see more TV in prison than here. But he’s broken the heart of his simple sister.

First seen in 2008, winner of Golden Awards, global success, there’s still life in Shukshin’s Stories. Latvian director Alvis Hermanis (Brodsky / Baryshnikov) has absorbed Shukshin’s films and stories and condensed into three hours a fine representative selection.

Theatre and film actors Evgeny Mironov (also Artistic Director of the Theatre of Nations) and Chulpan Khamatova (seen in London in Sovremennik Theatre’s Three Comrades, Two for the Seesaw, Three Sisters) take the leading roles with gusto, whilst Yulia Peresild, Julia Svezhakova, Alexander Novin, Pavel Akimkin, Alexander Grishin and Dmitry Zhuravlev provide strong backing.

The acting is superb, honest and true. Both Mironov and Khamatova are bundles of hyperactive energy, body language almost balletic. Russians in the audience love it all, as do I: the accordion playing, the Altai region songs breaking up the scene changes, the vivid vignettes of a life that even if they’ve not lived it is in their DNA be it from literature, dacha holidays, or family stories.

Best known for his 1974 film, The Red Snowball Tree (Kalina Krasnaya), which he wrote, directed, and in which he took the lead role, Shukshin in his short life was a man of many talents and skills.

Born in the Altai region of Siberia, which he mined for his short stories, Shukshin rose from working on a collective farm to work in a turbine then a tractor factory. He was a labourer on a railroad maintenance train, radio expert in the Navy, village school principal, teacher of Russian language and literature, writer, filmmaker, director, actor, though he claimed to be a writer first and foremost.

First-hand experience, succinct reportage done with compassionate, maybe even Chekhovian dispassionate, and Gogolian impressionistic, wit. He did his people proud, as the Theatre of Nations does him.

Reviewer: Vera Liber