Dostoevsky in Kafka’s Clothes
Valery Fokin (1946) is a stage director, artistic director, People’s Artist of the Russian Federation and the recipient of several prestigious awards. He won the top award of the most famous Russian theatre festival, the Golden Mask, twice. In 1991 he established the Meyerhold Centre in Moscow, one of the capital’s notable contemporary art centres which he also led for two decades. He is currently the artistic director of the Alexandrinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, established in 1756. He participated at the first Madách International Theatre Meeting (MITEM, 2014) with Zero liturgy, an adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Gambler; in 2015 with Gogol’s Marriage. He has taken an active role in the professional programmes of MITEM (Memory and Oblivion – The Mission of Theatre in the Context of Contemporary Culture, 2014; National Theatres in the 21st Century – Roundtable Discussion with the Participation of Directors of National Theatres and other Theatre Professionals, 2015; Meyerhold Conference, 2015; National Theatres in the 21st Century – A Harmony of Many Colours, 2016). The present interview was published in the Nemzeti Színház Magazin (National Theatre Magazine) on the occasion of the October 2016 Hungarian premiere of A krokodilus (The Crocodile), Fokin’s adaptation of Dostoevsky’s short story. The production is included in this year’s MITEM programme as well.
– It may be available in Hungarian, but Dostoevsky’s The Crocodile remains largely unknown. Why did you choose it?
The question actually answers itself: exactly because of its obscurity. It has never been put to stage either: I’m only aware of a single such attempt in Russia. And it is an incredibly opportune story, too! Dostoevsky’s genius is clearly illustrated by the fact that he wrote about a future feeling that we feel incredibly contemporary: that of irrationality becoming a daily occurrence. The otherwise bland and inconsequential protagonist of the story commands attention after being swallowed by a crocodile. He does not die, though, but begins to preach from the beast’s innards. Lo and behold, everyone is fascinated by his drivel. All of a sudden this entirely absurd situation becomes the norm and we readily accept the lunacy of our world.
– What hides behind this lesser known Dostoevsky?
It is a major departure from his usual. This novella has a tragic-comical tone bordering on the absurd, reminiscent of Kafka and Mrozek. From this perspective, we can consider Dostoevsky the precursor of the absurd genre. In light of his major literary works such as Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov or The Idiot this is an entirely unexpected tone. For the uninitiated it is hard to believe that he did pen this work.
– Humour is not one of Dostoevsky’s trademarks…
Indeed not. At the same time, his talent was quite multi-coloured. He has a number of fantastical-satirical writings, most prominent of which are The Crocodile and The Double.
– This is your second work in Hungary, this time with the National Theatre, following a previous one at the Pécs National Theatre. What is your impression of Hungarian actors?
I have been in many parts of the world and have met a wide variety of companies. It seems as though – beyond the differences and similarities – talented actors are alike in every country. Talent does not have a national specificity. The ideal actor – and I have met many of those here in Hungary – is a master of both empathy on the inside and stagecraft on the outside, delivering the performance with conviction and confidence. This is what makes them authentic. More often than not the issue is that a particular actor will deliver stagecraft, lacking inner empathy. Russian actors can often be that way, delivering loud emotions on stage while lacking any inner feeling and believe this to be the pinnacle of acting. Technique alone will never convince the audience.
– You have a hands-on approach during rehearsals. Not only do you explain what you have in mind but you also show what you wish to see on the stage. Are details that important to you?
I cannot work any other way. The scenario has to very meticulous while also striving to give the actors a similarly detailed inner “score”. Afterwards, it’s up to them to further refine it. A good performance is one where these two scenarios are harmonised. I don’t like inaccuracy or liberal approach. It benefits neither the director nor the actor. Granted, one often sees that anything can happen on stage, one way or another, but I cannot deal with that. Often the audience can’t either. A good performance is like a musical performance. Although we may not hear the actual musicality of the play, it is still there in the way the scenes follow one another, with everything properly placed and paced, with the appropriate rhythm changes. Just like following a musical score. Of course interpretation still has its place and it is up to the musician to decide the length of pause between “movements”. If, however, the delivery is not accurate, it will all fall apart.
– Projected images have a crucial role in this play.
If a performance can function without projections or other artificial additions, these have to be avoided at all costs. They are superfluous. Sometimes my students are quite proud of the frequent use of video projections. Why is that? – I ask. They say that it makes the performance contemporary and modern. This is a mistake. I seldom use this technique because it took stages by storm, becoming a fad, customary and to some point indifferent. In this case, however, I had to employ some footage to show how our protagonist is able to thrive in the belly of a crocodile.
– Will you be back directing in Hungary?
I can’t really say yet. For sure, the cooperation between our theatres is excellent. We have been featured twice in the MITEM and the National Theatre’s spectacular Johanna a máglyán (Joan of Arc at the Stake) and the play Mesés férfiak szárnyakkal (Fabulous Winged Men) have been performed at the Alexandrinsky. In September we had a very successful premiere of Crime and Punishment directed by Attila Vidnyánszky, which we would also like to bring to next spring’s MITEM. We are also in talks about bringing The Crocodile to St. Petersburg. We have also received a request to take these two plays to a third festival abroad. So the cooperation is continuing. As for the rest, we will see…
Interview by Sándor Zsigmond Papp
Magazine of the National Theatre, September–October, 2016
Translated by Dénes Albert
(15 April 2017)