Puppet Theatre :
Battle of Stalingrad
TBILISI, REPUBLIC OF GEORGIA, 13 JUNE 2000 -
Tucked away in an obscure basement up a winding street in the old town
of Tbilisi in the Caucasus Republic of Georgia is a remarkable theatre
that merits the effort of the search.
Next to an informal arty
cafe called the San Souci, managed by the same people, is the
city’s marionette theatre, which has deservedly developed an
international reputation over the past few years.
shows have traditionally been targeted largely towards children, those
created by Rizo Gabriadze, the Georgian director, have a distinctly
adult focus. And they convey a message with considerably more subtlety
than the average television Spitting Image / Guignols-style
Gabriadze’s latest spectacle, which premiered
earlier this season in St Petersburg, is entitled, The Battle of
Stalingrad. In spite of the director’s southern origins, he
felt that the theme required the language of the spectacle to be
Russian. And, as a colleague who saw the play in the extraordinary
surroundings of a Georgian women’s prison observed, it had a
powerful impact even on those who spoke little of the language.
beauty of the medium is that it lends itself easily to surtitles, or
even - with some loss of authenticity - to recordings in any alternative
language. As the sound-track plays, the puppeteers do their mute but
skillful work, allowing the piece to be easily performed anywhere around
Even without understanding a word, the visual
impact of the play is sufficient to provide an extraordinary experience.
In a powerful opening sequence, a skeleton rises from rubble-like sand
and sifts through the debris to the accompaniment of melancholic music.
belief suspended even more than in conventional theatre, you soon start
to admire the innovation used to recreate a different form of reality
with its own unusual and self-conscious twists. For example, a moving
train is imaginatively created by using a rotating metal bucket with
holes cut in the side out through which a light shines on human
As the bucket is removed and the sound-track of the
train noises continues, the audience itself is transformed into the
passengers travelling within. Two rotating disks on the stage carrying a
range of objects spin around in different directions to simulate the
passing landscape seen through the windows. First, there are signals and
telegraph poles, then buildings, and towards the end of the journey two
statues of Lenin with his arm outstretched, turning symbolically in
Much of the performance is not really about
Stalingrad at all. Some scenes set the historical context, such as that
in a decadent 1930s Berlin cafe. A fop uses elaborate manoeuvres to
smoke his cigarette in its holder, while the central love affair of the
play - between two emaciated horses caught in the seige - takes by at
the next table.
Other aspects treat the emotional stresses
present in any war. In a simple but powerful scene, a woman at home
raises a handkerchief to her eyes and sobs as she looks at the empty
double bed, her lover disappeared to the front. In another, a soldier on
the front line is confronted with his childhood sweetheart getting
married, out of his reach.
In fact, there is very little
attempt to show the impact of fighting at all, or even the enormous
physical hardships of the Russians besieged in their city. The notable
exception is a powerful scene simply showing endless rows of German
helmuts in neat rows marching unstoppably towards the front.
of the time, the puppeteers clothed in black do not intrude too far into
the performance. But occasionally, their presence adds powerfully to the
experience. In one scene, the hands of one, seemingly with a character
in their own right, are caught in the lighting, as they wring out a tiny
cloth in a bucket and clean the floor of a miniaturised bedroom.
another, a "peeping Tom" soldier discreetly observing a young
girl bathing is brushed aside by the female puppeteer’s arm, after
her puppet-daughter, calls out to her "mother" for help.
has helped bring puppeteering firmly towards the theatrical mainstream.
And for those who prefer not to venture to Tbilisi, the show will be
touring Europe and the United States in 2000.
Dates on Mr. Gabriadze's tour of the marionette production of the Battle
of Stalingrad include Washington, D.C. (Kennedy
Center , 22 November - 3 December 2000).
Jack is the Moscow correspondent for the Financial Times and a member of
the editorial board of Culturekiosque.com. He is the author of a new
book entitled, "The French Exception" (London: Profile Book).
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