Soviet children's writer Daniil Kharms died young in a lunatic asylum during World War II. Are his stories allegories about the State? TEATR BIURO PODROZY's Fringe adaptation of his work has some fun while asking big questions. Words: Steve Cramer

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POLAND'S LONG HISTORY OF OPPRESSION FROM THE East has brought about an attitude of. at best. unease with all things Russian. It seems surprising. then. that one of the country’s most prominent avant-garde theatre companies should bring the work of a Russian writer to the Fringe.

But this is precisely vvhat Teatr Biuro Podrozy are doing with the work of acclaimed Russian children's writer Daniil Kharms. who died in internment in I942 at the age of 39. Quizzed as to why such a choice should be made. producer Jane Frere points to the affection in which Kharms. a dissident of a very unusual kind. is held by the company.

“It’s not as straightforward as picking tip a rebel and finding a cause’. says Frere. noting that their take on

Kharms is more oblique than the simple championing of

an alternative Soviet political writer. ‘I think there‘s an admiration for his eccentricity. The fact that he disguised himself as Sherlock Holmes complete with deerstalkei‘.



familiar with Teatr Biuro Podrozy, whose spectacular ('urincn l’nnebre brought about much praise in 1996. That show. which incorporated a great deal of awesome physical spectacle into a story of war and social turmoil. represented the Balkan conflict in a manner which moved and provoked audiences. ‘lt was at the height of the Bosnian war.‘ Frere recalls. ‘and this piece of theatre conveyed life in that situation even more immediately than either television or film.’

Can we expect differences in the much-awaited new shovv'.’ Frere speaks of a greater sense of pure fun in Drink Vinegar Gent/cinen. despite the darkness it contains. ‘lt’s very playful and child-like,” she reckons. ‘We’ve recommended it for audiences over the age of twelve. but I‘m not sure that even younger children wouldn’t enjoy it. There‘s a lot of clowning in it, and it has a kind of frivolous charm. It works on many different levels. and you could just come along and have fun.’

cape and pipe attracted the attention of the secret police. At centre stage. "I’he fact that Kharms disguised

To'thein. this was'outrageous. But he was. part of a group metaphorically and himself as Sherlock Ho|mes _

of artists who behaved in this extiaoidinaiy way. and they litei ally in this ,

were ptit under terrible pressure for their behaviour.‘ production. stands an comPIEte W'th deerStalker: cape This may not sound terribly political. btit Kharms’s enormous book of and pipe attracted the attention

work which has been adapted and performed as theatre Kharms s stories. a of the secret police: Jane Frere

all over Europe. though seldom in Britain has frequently been read as allegorising the Soviet State‘s violence.

‘There’s so much about death in his writing.‘ says Frere of

the dark undercurrents in his children’s stories. 'There’s a big debate about whether he wrote these things as a form of political attack. What we can say is that he inevitably reflected the society he lived in. where people would be herded off in a black Maria in the middle of the night over some comment made in a bread queue which had been seen as subversive.‘

And what of the company presenting this complex allegory? Regular Fringe theatre admirers will already be

28 THE US! 19—26 Aug 1999

prop which doubles as many things during the course of the play. From it emerges a succession of characters, including the writer himself. Frere describes the technique as ‘a succession of vignettes. like little surrealist films’. combining to present a picture of the writer and his stories. Those who think that East European theatre is too laden with ideas to entertain should see this piece and think again.

Drink Vinegar Gentlemen (Fringe) Teatr Biuro Podrozy, Theatre Workshop (Venue 20) 226 5425, until 29 Aug, times vary, £7.50 (£5).