Do the Georgians Want a War?
La guerre qui a éclaté en août 2008 entre la Géorgie et la Russie se poursuit sur scène, avec divers degrés de vision artistique et de maturité. En témoigne la deuxième vitrine du théâtre géorgien, qui a eu lieu dans la capitale, Tbilissi, en octobre 2010.
The August war in 2008 between Georgia and Russia continues on stage, with varying degrees of artistic vision and maturity. The second edition of the Georgian theatre showcase was presented in the capital Tbilisi in October 2010.
It is difficult to imagine that anyone should come to witness a performance about the war between Georgia and Russia as a blissfully innocent spectator. We all think we know something in advance, be it from a regular following of the news from the conflict area, or our sympathies and preconceptions, political or cultural.
My baggage contains three quotes. Arto Luukkanen, a Finnish lecturer on Russian studies at the university of Helsinki, says in his pamphlet Georgian sota that even though the actual shooting was over in five days, the parties will continue to fight for the attention of world media. I wonder if theatre could be seen as an attempt to gain acceptance from the world media to Georgian interpretations of the origins and consequences of the war. And if so, how to locate the boundary where theatre ceases to be art and slides into propaganda? Or, how many per cents of propaganda can art contain and still remain art? Do national concerns inevitably become nationalistic when staged?
My second quote is on sale in many a Tbilisi bookshop. It is A Little War That Shook the World by an American author Ronald D. Asmus. He follows the origins of the war very closely, tracing several failed or neglected opportunities to negotiate: what went wrong, who should have done what and when. In the end Asmus suggests that Georgia prove to the world that its commitment to democratic development remains as steady as it was before the war. I wonder how democracy can be perceived on stage; it certainly is not visible. Or, how many per cent of democracy must a performance portray to be accepted as democratic instead of nationalistic?
My third quote is a point of comparison. In a well-known Soviet poem (1961) Yevgeni Yevtushenko asks, Do the Russians Want a War (English translation by Tom Botting in Fifty Soviet Poets). The answer is obvious, but what counts is just how Yevtushenko takes his reader there. In Tbilisi 2010 the answer is equally obvious, but I wonder if Georgian performances will be as skilful and impressive in their rhetoric as Yevtushenko.
Considering the amount of time it must take to mount a production, Georgian theatres have reacted to the war very quickly, or in some cases perhaps even hastily.
The world media shifts its attention at such a pace that even a little war will not shake the world for long, but it will soon be thrust aside and forgotten in the never-ending procession of always fresh wars and catastrophes. Therefore one must declare oneself the moral winner of one’s war in a hurry. It is the fastest who wins this war, not the one with the most mature artistic vision.
Hot August written and directed by Soso Mensadze is based on authentic refugee experiences and performed by the theatre of Gori. The Russian army occupied Gori, the birthplace of the Soviet dictator Stalin, for ten days in 2008.
It tells an emotional story of one family forced to flee from home. The many generations of the family allow the author to describe every possible attitude in the face of the crisis: some worry about the safety of their dear ones, some would like to stay no matter what, some fuss about things to eat, some wave religious symbols. On the stage, there is a big parasol and scattered garden furniture. The well and the dirt hill, the small elements of Georgian landscape in the scenography are visibly plastic, almost embarrassingly so. The actors keep walking off stage only to return for reasons which remain unclear despite the efforts of a translation screen, which displays entire scenes at a time.
Russian soldiers march on the stage in one scene. They find alcohol, gulp it down, become so drunk they start to sing and dance, and in the same mood they shoot dead a Georgian shepherd who happens to walk by. It may well be that the scene is based on a real event, and I accept that in the chaos of any war anything can happen and that everything happens out of context, but still, presented like this, the scene exists merely to brand Russians.
All the actors of the first professional theatre company in Georgia died in combat against Persia in 1795, writes professor Vasil Kiknadze in the showcase booklet. This historical burden makes it more understandable that theatre should be so closely allied with a military type of nationalism in Georgia.
As in every small country, there is more suffering than victories in the military history. A logical consequence of this is to present suffering as ennobling. Georgia certainly qualifies as a noble nation with its track record of suffering from Soviet and Russian presence. Even so, the Soviet occupation was a golden age for the Georgian theatre with its brilliant use of subtext against the powers-that-be. The director Robert Sturua is the foremost name in this respect. The showcase programme included Sturua’s Styx, a production premiered six years ago. With no dialogue, it is set to the music of Gia Kancheli. A huge cast of the Shota Rustaveli Drama Theatre makes dance-like moves, sometimes with chairs. An egg is fried and eaten with intense concentration and with metaphoric connotations which escaped me. Lasha Chkhartishvili, a Georgian critic, said that the old master Sturua is still occupied with Aesopian attacks against the Soviet power. What a mean and therefore delightful thing to say, even if one agreed that Soviet style of power politics have resurfaced in a disguise.
If a local explanation seems alien, and an old master’s explanation seems outdated, how about a foreigner’s view?
Do We Look like Refugees is also based on interviews of refugees from Gori, among other places, and performed by Experimental Stage. It was directed by an English woman Alecky Blythe and premiered at the Edinburgh festival in 2010. The stage is almost bare save for a desk and a few chairs, but the scenes take place in bureaus, in the street, in shops etc. The minimal amount of scenography and props perhaps tells us that refugees are not able to carry to safety the material parts of their former lives.
These refugees flirt and boast and fill in applications to receive (more than) their share of state support for the homeless. They are not appeals to world opinion to be unanimously accepted by the audience, but they are human and sometimes contradictory. Theirs is an identifiable suffering. It takes the irony of a Western director to achieve this, but immediately one must ask if Western aesthetics really are superior. Also, as a Finnish critic I perhaps do not qualify as the most genuine Westerner; do I subscribe to Western irony to be accepted by the West? Have I overexposed myself to Western theatrical conventions? Am I too blunt to appreciate anything different?
One of my favourite obsessions is to question why irony is considered the highest degree of human consciousness in the first place. Irony means laughing at oneself, right? When everyone else is already laughing at you, why should it be so precious to join them? Who will then be left to defend you?
The beginning looks like science fiction. There is a master chef in a silver coloured outfit trying to remember the ingredients of his perfect recipe. His mother-in-law is about to receive a new suitor, who looks eccentric to begin with, but turns completely grotesque after tasting a tiniest morsel of the pudding with alcohol in it.
Men chase women, people hide in giant kettles, walls crush in, and miniature toy helicopters fly above the auditorium. All logic has flown away long ago, but the cast never gives up the out-of-breath pace.
Yes it describes the war between Georgia and Russia, but the ironies of the show are too dense and wild to be interpreted in one way only. The Batumi Pudding defends its every character while simultaneously making fun of them all. That is how democracy works within a work of art. It is national without being nationalistic. The moral winner of the war is theatre which has the courage to fool around, to share the joy of playing.
ASMUS, RONALD D. 2010. A Little War That Shook the World. New York: Palgreve Macmillan.
GEORGIAN SHOWCASE. 2010. Tbilisi: Sezanne Ltd.
LUUKKANEN, ARTO. 2008. Georgian sota. Helsinki: WSOY.
OGNEV, VLADIMIR and ROTTENBERG, DORIAN (eds.). 1974. Fifty Soviet Poets. Moscow: Progress.
 Matti Linnavuori is a theatre critic based in Helsinki, Finland, and a member of the Critical Stages editorial board.