Jonathan Salway, the Director of the Moscow English Theatre (MET) joins the program to talk about this issue.
Jonathan heads the only English Language Theatre with an English language repertoire in Moscow, and is thus involved, every day, with communicating British culture to Russians. In answer to the question, has British culture had an impact on Russian culture?, Jonathan answers that we perhaps underestimated the depth to which Russians understand us: "I have been here for 7 years and MET has been running for 5. I recently married a Russian. My mother-in-law, back in the Soviet Union, studied Sheridan. Now you have to be a bit specialized to understand Sheridan's work, and she knew it very well. She said: ‘in the Soviet Union we would look at lots of different theatrical works from other countries. They had that, but not necessarily the exposure."
"One of our first plays that we performed here was ‘Educating Rita,' this is about the class system in Britain, and I was thinking — will this appeal to a Russian audience? It did, they associated with the characters. They had some concept of the class system, they couldn't necessarily determine what one actress was saying in a Liverpudlian accent, but they did understand the essence of what was going on….When we started to rehearse the play we were thinking if we should change the play to make it ‘understandable' to a Russian audience, but in the end we decided to do this as we would do it to a British audience. We could tell that the audience was with us because they got the jokes."
"…We set off with the idea that we wanted to do contemporary theatre. Partly because many of the companies which come over here, such as the Royal Shakespeare Company, bring, obviously, a lot of more traditional plays, and many are done in great, very innovative ways….I think there is such a body of British playwrights since the 60s and 70s, so we thought, right, we wanted to appeal to a younger audience, and we wanted some of the plays and themes that we perform to have relevance with our audience today. Our second show was ‘Blue Orange' and that was really about race relations, and perceptions of people from different ethnic minorities in Britain. I was thinking — will this have any relevance at all?, and again, it did strike a chord with people. I think they saw that as a very British issue as well, so I think that was an interesting insight for them."
Most of the members of MET's audiences are people who have studied English, so one could say that they are not the average Russian. "Obviously there are a good number of students, but they are certainly not the majority. There's expats, but they are a minority. The Mayakovsky Theatre where we perform, have been great in promoting our plays; we seem to be picking up a good number of regular theatre goers in Moscow who have a good understanding of English…" Judging by what Jonathan says, It would seem that there is a strong enough European base culture in Russia to make it very possible for Russians to understand British theatre and culture, even though we live on an island.
"I think there is a great interest in British culture, a desire to learn the language, which I find to be very strong here. Before I came to Moscow I did a lot of touring around the world, and I was surprised to find so many people with an interest in British culture and of course in English. And then you have this immense theater culture here. I would rate Russian culture and history as being one of the most vibrant in the world. I was working in Voronezh a few weeks ago on an international theatre festival, doing some workshops, and there was an Italian there, and he was relating the fact that audiences are difficult to find in Italy, that it is a kind of dying art form. But in Moscow, it seems to me that it's in its heyday…"
Jonathan also teaches acting to Russia actors and actresses. Here again, there seems to be a cultural overlap. "The Stanislavsky method is still part of a bedrock of teaching acting skills in the UK and the US. That is a Russian method, albeit from a century ago… In Russia, I use techniques from when I rehearsed in England, and from what I learned in drama school. I had one student who had done quite a lot of Russian acting training as well, and he said that there is quite a lot of cross over. One thing I have found here is that Russians tend to have a longer rehearsal period. I don't know if that is something cultural or something economic or practical…. Russians tend to be earnest, they look for the truth, and tap into that emotional side extremely well…"
Throughout the program, Jonathan stresses that Russians are also Europeans, and that perhaps we have been exaggerating the differences. It is not the same thing as working with an alien culture. "…I know people who have gone to Japan and worked in theater there, and they have said: this is completely different. There is a stereotype that Russians don't have a sense of humor, and perhaps in the street they are like that, but once you cut through it, things are completely different. The recent show we are doing, called ‘Every Brilliant Thing' has a lot of audience participation. We take people from the audience and they shout stuff out, it's a very serious theme — mental illness, it's a comedy on that. I was worried that we wouldn't find anybody here who would volunteer to participate in that way, but from the first performance we did, when that first scene came up, somebody came up. They saw that you are playing with us, so we can play back, we are involved with this… there were particular gags, and they love laughing!.."
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