Saturday, 18 February 2017

Yørgjin Oxo - a play of elements

Photo credit: Farnham Maltings

Farnham Maltings Theatre Group is on tour, playing Yørgjin
Oxo, by Thomas Crowe.Directed by Gavin Stride & Kevin Dyer
Tour Manager is Olly Jacques

As the audience arrives, the actors mingle with them, offering them delicious twig tea and Marshland cakes.
The story is about Marshlanders and it is as much a celebration of sound effects – sometimes singing without words – as it is of the characters and

Uncle Quagmire teaches our eponymous young hero about the delights of mud and boggy ground.
When danger appears, it is brutal and shocking. Many Marshlanders are taken as prisoners to Firmland, where they have to work as slaves in the mud mines to make bricks, to create a vast cathedral.

Yørgjin is discovered to have special powers which only operate when he is asleep. The elements play important roles – the water of the ocean, the earth bricks of the tall cathedral that rises high up into the air, the fire that razes villages and the rain that is the ultimate saviour, after the resolute courage of a sword-wielding mouse.

Yorgjin climbs the church steeple. Photo credit: Charlotte

The acting is excellent and the plot is constantly surprising. The actors sometimes move through the audience and you feel very much a part of the story. All your emotions are drawn in. There's fear and horror inspired by Simeon, the Viking-like leader of destruction. Yet even he comes to realise he has a soul, darkened by his misdeeds but able to let him glimpse the possibility of how love could transform him.

Love in its different forms – for landscape, elements, other people and other species – creates the threads that hold the story together and brings the triumph of justice at the end.

This is a superbly-acted and warm-hearted production. Go and see it if you can.
Tour Dates here (19th February in Wigtown, Dumfries & Galloway)

And Yørgjin (Robert Durbin) survives to ........ enjoy a morning bowl of porridge 

Friday, 10 February 2017

Refugees from the Russian Revolution: 2 From Kyiv to Odessa and Novorossiisk

Odessa  in early 1900s; photo credit HOBOPOCC - Public Domain,

Teffi reaches Odessa where she and all the other fugitives believe they will be safer and this feeling is confirmed when France, which is one of Russia's allies, occupies the port town. But one day, without warning, the French troops left. Rumours of the approaching Bolsheviks were rife, gunfire could be heard at night, and people who had hoped to get travel permits from the French were scrambling to get on the last boats to set sail.

Friends of Teffi had passes to go on board the Shilka, heading for Vladivostok and said she could go with them.

'Now that something had been arranged, I realized just how much I wanted to leave...I could see what life would be  like for me if I stayed. It wasn't death itself that I was afraid of. I was afraid of maddened faces, of lanterns being shone in my eyes, of blind mindless rage. I was afraid of cold, of hunger, of darkness, of rifle butts banging on parquet floors. I was afraid of screams, of weeping, of gunshots, of the deaths of others. I was tired of it all, I wanted no more of it. I had had enough.'

But when she turns up on the quay at the agreed time, there were no lights on the boat, and no-one else was waiting. She went back to her hotel, where almost everyone had left, including most of the staff. When another friend turns up, distraught and not wanting to be on his own, he says that the friends who had said she could go with them on the Shilka, had already left, on board the Caucasus, heading for Constantinople. But he suggests she go with him on the Shilka, as he had two passes and didn't want to be on his own.

'We drove along the dark streets to the harbour.
We heard the odd shot somewhere nearby; in the distance, though, the gunfire sounded more serious.'

The Red Cavalry Brigade enters Odessa, 1919; photo credit wikimedia commons
They succeeded in getting on board the Shilka, which eventually arrived in Novorossiisk. But this journey became the most bizarre of them all, including an engineer among the passengers having to fix the engine, while all the other passengers had to load the coal for the boiler, and gut the fish for the meals, as most of the crew seemed to have absconded.

From Novorossiisk, where there were no rooms to be found, she ended up back on board ship and staying there, until she was asked to go to Yekaterinodar, '[which] was at this time our centre, our White capital.' Teffi's plays were being performed there, and she was asked to give a short reading. They performed to a full house; many high ranking officers including Anton Denikin, the commander in chief of the White forces in southern Russia, were in the audience. 

Photo credit: wikimedia commons

Almost all of the refugees including Teffi, believed that they would go back to Moscow or Saint Petersburg at some point or at least to some part of Russia. They also almost unanimously believed or hoped, that the Bolsheviks would soon be beaten back by the White Army and that some kind of normalcy would return. For Teffi and many others, though they did not know it at the time, they were leaving Russia for good; sailing away from Novorossiisk, meant seeing their homeland for the last time. While Teffi herself would go on to live out the rest of her life in Paris, some of her friends would return to Russia  and many of them would not survive in the Bolshevik regime.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Refugees from the Russian Revolution: 1 – From Moscow to Kyiv

Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea by Teffi (Pen name of Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya) 
translated by Robert Chandler and Irina Steinberg


Thanks to Pushkin Press and  their excellent translations I've made another discovery, the Russian writer Teffi. In Memories she writes about her journey as she escapes Russia in 1919, in the throes of the civil war that followed the revolution. In a series of extraordinary stories and sketches, she presents memorable characters and remarkable conversations. She writes in a deceptively simple and seeming light-hearted prose about the varied adventures and sometimes near-desperate situations she and her companions undergo.

For example, after they have succeeded in leaving Moscow, the next hurdle is getting across the border into Ukraine. After a helpful officer disappears (with rumours that he has been shot, for taking bribes) it seems impossible that they will be allowed to cross the border. But in the nearby rundown transit settlement they are asked to put on a performance of plays and songs to an audience of Red Army soldiers, and assured that if they do, they will be allowed to cross. One of their number, Gooskin, says “Now we're in real trouble. Slap into the hornet's nest. Executions every day. Only three days ago a general was burned alive. And they make off with every last piece of luggage. We must get out of here fast.”

By some miracle, the day after their performance they are given the promised escort to the border and continue their journey with several changes of trains, to Kiev, where Teffi sees an extraordinary sight – a Russian officer standing outside a bakery, eating a cake. She writes,
“Just imagine – daylight, sunshine, people everywhere, and in the officer's hand, an unseen, unheard-of luxury, the stuff of legend – a cake!
I close my eyes and open them again. No, it isn't a dream. So it must be real life.”

Sunrise over modern day Kyiv
 Teffi finds a room to rent in Kyiv. It is virtually unfurnished and the windows don't close properly (it's winter) but it is central and spacious, and she likes it. She writes some articles for the local newspaper, Kiev Thought and then comes down with Spanish flu. In a delirious state, she remembers friends coming to visit her, bringing bouquets of flowers. After she recovered she writes,

“.. when I went outside for the first time, Kiev was all ice. Black ice and wind. The few pedestrians I saw were barely able to make their way along the streets. They were falling like ninepins, knocking their companions off their feet too.
I remember an editorial office I used to visit from time to time. It was halfway up an icy hill. Trying to get to it form below was hopeless – I'd manage ten steps then slide back down again. Approaching it from above was no better; I would gain too much momentum and slide straight past. Never in my life had I encountered such ice.

The mood in the city had changed; it was no longer celebratory. Something had been extinguished. Everyone was on the alert, ears pricked, eyes darting about. Many people had quietly disappeared, to destinations unknown. There was more and more talk of Odessa.
“Things are looking up in Odessa, I've heard. Whereas round here... Peasants, armed bands....They're closing in on us.....Petlyura or something....”
Kiev Thought did not fear Petlyura. Petlyura was a former employee. He would, of course, remember this.
He did indeed. His very first decree was to close down Kiev Thought. Long before he entered the city, he sent his minions ahead with instructions.
Kiev Thought was perplexed, even a little embarrassed.
But close it did.”

Centre of Kyiv today

Petlyura was the leader of the Ukrainian Nationalists. During the revolution and the ensuing civil war, Kyiv was sometimes controlled by the Nationalists, sometimes by the White Army and ultimately by the victorious Bolshevik army.

As well as poetry, short stories and satires, Teffi wrote plays, and this shows in her superb dialogue. As her journey continues, with events and characters becoming more and more surreal I suddenly understand Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. In an utterly bizarre world how else can you write? In situations in life which make no sense yet you have to respond to, and when these events clash hopelessly with your sense of reason, your desires, your usual way of responding and relating to others, the imagination makes leaps into fantasy.  Or the imagined past, as Bulgakov does so well as he gets inside the mind of his character of Pontius Pilate, living at a time when events were equally bizarre. 

Bulgakov had personally requested Stalin to let him emigrate, but permission was refused. The Master and Margarita was written in secret, and never published in his lifetime. But living in the Stalinist regime where he was not free either to publish what he wanted, or leave, writing his surreal masterpiece makes complete sense.

Teffi and her fellow  citizens, acquaintances, friends and colleagues are trying to escape. In situations where the normal rules of life are suspended, and as rumour follows rumour, they have no idea what is going on or what will happen. Russia, after the Revolution, was in the throes of civil war, Ukraine was occupied by the Germans, but after they retreated, Ukraine declared itself independent. After this very brief spell of autonomy, it was occupied by the White Army, followed a few months later by the Red Army.  As soldiers who had fought in the White Army found themselves no longer able to protect the city and the citizens, they were in grave danger themselves. Bulgakov's The White Guard, written several years before The Master and Margarita, tells the story of a family caught up in these terrifying times. (It was dramatised, but later suppressed by Stalin's regime.)

Saint Michael's monastery, Kyiv