1988 Olivier Actor OfThe Year Brian Cox is the man
behind the Moscow Art Theatre School‘s version of The Crucible. He talks to Simon Bayly about a pioneering piece of theatrical glasnost.
An American play based on the 17th century Salem witchhunts performed in Russian by Soviet actors directed by a Scot‘.’ Not the most obvious of combinations perhaps. but an intriguing and adventurous one none the less.
The Scot in question is Brian Cox. whose recent performance in the lead role ofthe RSC‘s Titus Amlronicus confirmed him as one of Britain‘s best. Last year. he landed an invitation from the Moscow Art Theatre School to take a short series ofmasterclasses and after getting to know both the school and students he decided to take the chance to try out something of his own.
‘It struck me that something was missing — a lot of political theatre was very heavy-handed stuff. about the French Revolution. and nothing really substantial about the real situation in Russia. So I thought it might be interesting to work with them on something like The Crucible — which is ofcourse about McCarthyism in its original form but for these kids was all about Stalinism.‘
The ‘kids‘ Cox talks about with an almost paternal affection are the students. aged between 25 and 3(). attached to the Russian theatre‘s most famous — and most traditional — institution. the Moscow Art Theatre. Founded by Stanislavski over 90 years ago. the shadow of the great actor/director still hangs over the place, a legacy that Cox found something of an obstacle when the school‘s manager asked him to turn his Crucible workshops into a full-scale production.
‘The training involves the students being told exactly what to think. They like to be told what to do every single moment. I asked them to make their own decisions. to take responsibilty, which was sometimes very tricky.‘
With director-bashing now a favourite pastime of British actors. I wondered if this situation reflected a
different attitude in Soviet theatre. ‘Yes. it‘s still very much the case that the director is a kind of ‘auteur‘. Personally. I don‘t believe in that. I believe that if the actor abdicates responsibility. it makes for a very flaccid kind of theatre. But the
Russians tend to work like that. using the Stanislavski system. They do understand what they‘re doing but in so many ways it‘s part of a society that responds often only to obedience — so long a slave culture until the 19th century. and during the last 60 years slaves to a system of a very different kind. That is something that you don‘t realize is so prevalent in Russian thinking.‘
Cox is a great admirer of the sheer passion and intensity ofmuch Russian acting but at the same time wanted to draw something more subtle from his proteges. ‘I had to get them thinking in a slightly different way. their energy is so ferocious. The Russians act on the front foot all the time. which has tremendous advantages but also some problems.
I tried to get them to back off slightly. to make things more implicit
without losing that energy— it‘s a play about hysteria, so it‘s about ferocious energy.‘
The Crucible is by far Miller‘s most politically incisive play and altogether removed from the more poetic realism ofTennessee Williams, the American playwright most known in Russia. ‘The interesting thing was trying to make them understand certain things that had been eroded from their lives, like the value of your name. When Miller wrote the play, he was describing a kind of infection that had just begun. but Stalinism has been a ‘mass epidemic‘ for 50 years. Looking at that, you start to realize that there are some sensibilities that people are just not aware of.
‘Now they‘ve changed their tune about it completely, mostly due to the play’s effect on Russian audiences and especially on older people who really lived through those times.’
Cox has a particularily revealing story in this respect after seeing the show finally open in Moscow in January to excited and somewhat suspicious audiences. ‘On opening nights they sit all the retired actresses in the front row and the response was wonderful — one of them was shouting ‘Fascist, Fascist!‘ at the Parris character in the final scenes! It proved a huge success in Moscow, partly because of the subject matter. partly because of the rumours of this half-crazed Scot running around the Art Theatre. But a lot of the interest is to do with what‘s happening with
young people. It‘s been for so long a culture bound up with the older generation. These young actors just don‘t want to work in the traditional theatres and play Konstantin in the umpteemth revival ofthe The Seagull or whatever.‘
Fringe audiences expecting a ‘radically reworked classic‘ may well be disappointed as Cox has gone for a straightfoward stylistic rendering ofthe play. ‘Originally I tried setting it in a kind of theatrical ‘no-man‘s land‘ but it didn‘t work. The costumes turned out a disaster with the actors looking like refugees from Hammer films. So we went for Puritan collars in a simple way and it worked very well.‘
Hoping to continue the connection. he is currently working on an ‘International Foundation For Training In The Arts‘. bringing the Russian actors to work on Shakespeare in London, so he is still very much in touch with the production. Six months after the opening performance. he is obviously still keen to keep a hold on his actors. “They‘ve just done a tour ofthe Urals. so they‘ll perhaps be giving it a bit too much. I may have to pull them back into shape a little for Edinburgh!‘ For the actor turned director. it seems the Russian way of doing things does have an elusive appeal after all.
Moscow A r! Theatre School (Fringe) Assembly Rooms (Venue3) 226 2428, 29Aug—2 Sept, noon, £4.50 ([4).
The List 25 — 31 August 1989 9