On Sunday Katya, Berney and I went to see the stage version of Dostoevsky's 800-page novel Demons. The play premeired in 1991 in Germany, but we went to see it at the Maly Dramaticheski Teatr Evropy (The Small Dramatic Theatre of Europe), where it's a part of the repertoire. What's so special about this play that it deserves its own blog post?
It's nine and a half hours long.
Okay, so that figure includes two 1-hour breaks. Nonetheless, we were in that theatre on Rubenshtein Street from 11:45 AM till 9:30 PM. I've been to that theatre twice before, both times to see Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, and while the acting is supurb, it's one of the most uncomfortable theatres to sit in: the chairs are really hard and they're badly arranged - unless you're in one of the first three rows, you're craning your neck to see no matter where you sit in the house. This fact, more than anything, gave me pause when Katya suggested we attempt this theatrical feat. Eight hours in one of those Puritan-church-pew-hard chairs, craning my neck to see over the ample lady in front of me? No thanks. As it turns out, Katya is a genius. She got us tickets in the very last row (it's a tiny house - only 13 rows - so we weren't miles from the stage), and we were able to stand up to see better and stretch a bit whenver we needed to. This was good, because what turned out to be the most memorable and impressive scene for me took place on the4 floor in front of the stage, and if I couldn't have stood, I would have missed most of it.
If ever you plan to go see the 8-hour stage version of Demons, I have one suggestion: read the novel first. Or at least the ClifsNotes. I went in cold, and spent most of the first act trying to sort out who was who. The opening monologue by crazy Maria completely passed me by, and even at the end of the play I couldn't figure out why Nikolai Vsevoldovich and that other guy had a duel (other than the fact that no good work of 19th century Russian literature lacks a duel). I also couldn't figure out who owed who money and why - but debt is a major reoccuring theme for Dostoevsky, so it was probably important. And why was Nikolai Vsevoldovich secretly married to crazy Maria in the first place?
Anyway, the first act was just shy of three hours long, and I was pretty antsy by the end, mostly because I was really hungry. The second act when much more quickly and was very engaging. The third act had me utterly spellbound. The weird thing is that each act was equally full of Dostoevsky's philosophical monologues, orations that went on for 10-15 minutes but added nothing to the plot. When I read Dostoevsky, it's always these monologues that either stop me dead or get skimmed over so I can get the plot moving again (hence why I never got through Notes from Underground the first time - the whole first half of the book is one of those diatribes). I would have expected that my patience for these monologues would have worn thinner and thinner as the hours ticked by, but I actually found the opposite: I was completely riveted in Hour 8 by Kirillov's explanation to that scoundrel Pavel Stepanovich about why killing himself would be the highest form of evidence that he himself was God, that he refused to buy into the God that man has made up for himself to make himself feel better. That one-line summary I just gave does not do justice to the monologue.
I think from now on I should only read Dostoevsky in the original, not translated.
This play included everything a good play needs: three murders, two suicides, a duel, a secret socialist society, and one on-stage birth. Also, almost all of the women in the play had slept with or were sleeping with Nikolai Vsevoldovich, who, in my opinion, was not really worth all the fuss. The acting was really, truly excellent. I recognized several of the actors from Uncle Vanya. I was most impressed by the actors who played Kirillov and Shatov. The guy who played Nikolai Vsevoldovich did a poor job projecting, which was disappointing, as it was hard enough to understand even without straining to hear.
One thing I really love about the Maly Dramatichesky Teatr is its sets. The stage is not large, there's no curtain, and they do several different shows each week, so it's necessary that the sets and lighting be easy to change. The Demons set was very simple but very versatile. The stage was raked, sloping downwards from stage left to right. In the center was a large wooden box, about 4 meters wide and 4 meters tall. The down- and upstage sides of the box raised and lowered; the stage left and right sides could raise and lower, and were also hinged to swing downstage (to create, with the downstage side of the box, a long wall) or upstage (for the same effect). By changing the positions of the walls, we trasitioned from scene to scene and from room to room. At the very back of the stage a ladder stretched from below stage up into the rafters. Just downstage of the box, a meter-wide section of the whole length of the stage, hinged at stage right, lowered to make a ramp that led below stage and raised to bbecome a sort of inclined platform, the highest point of which was about a meter and a half above the stage. A similar platform just upstage of the box was hinged at stage left. They made really interesting use of these platforms - when a character died, they would appear laid-out on one of the platforms, which would raise to its highest point, pause, then lower below stage again. During the duel, the duelists each walked up one of the platforms (their 12 paces) as it was raising; at the summit, they shot. If I've described it well enough, you'll note that the duelists actually had their backs to each other and shot into the wings; I think this was a fantastic way to "gain" more space onstage, plus the slight disconnect of seeing one guy shoot towards stage right and the other guy react from stage left was very effective.
As I mentioned, the lighting was very simple - mostly almost plain-white light (I'm sure there were gels, but there were no obvious hues to the lighting). Despite some moments of comic relief, the play overall was pretty dark and gloomy, and the lighting reflected this - the audience ended up feeling as unclear of what they were seeing as the characters were. I could be mistaken, but I think the only brightly colored light was at the end, when blood-red light flooded the red ladder at the back of the stage.
Speaking of that ladder, it was made to be the focus of attention once in each of the three acts. In the first two, creepy music with a steady drumbeat played while a little girl climbed from the bottom to the top, while another character monologued in the foreground. Not sure what it symbolized, but it left a deep impression. And speaking of music - sound effects were minimal, but extremely well-used. I got goosebumps multiple times.
So I sort of feel like I've told you all this but described nothing of what it was really like. Simply a fantastic play. If you speak Russian and are ever in Petersburg and have 10 hours to kill on a Sunday, go see Demons.
3 days ago