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Russian Musical Re-emerges after Terrorist Attack

By Andrew Jack

MOSCOW, 15 April 2003—I cannot admit to being much of a fan of musicals, but you would have to be pretty hard-hearted not to be moved by Nord-Ost, the all-Russian show that re-opened this month after its cast and audience had been taken hostage by Chechen terrorists last autumn.

At least within Russia, Nord-Ost acquired considerable fame long before it gained notoriety. It attracted more than 300,000 spectators over a year-long run, before the show and its Dubrovka venue in central Moscow gained gobal attention because of the painful events of last October 23.

Nord-Ost was the cynically perfect target for a terrorist attack precisely because it was a symbol of the new Russia, re-emerging with fresh confidence after more than a decade of self-questioning and gloom following the collapse of the Soviet empire.

Other international musicals made it to Moscow during the 1990s, and many Russians took advantage of their new-found freedom and wealth to travel and see shows abroad; but Nord-Ost was the first truly home-grown exercise, conceived, casted and financed within the country.

Nearly all the actors and many of the musicians remain in the new version, which has been slightly modified but remains largely intact, down to the venue itself. Security has been tightened as the organisers try to anticipate the concerns of future audiences, which since the revival have included survivors of the siege and families of the victims.

Nord-Ost is based on the twentieth-century classic The Two Captains by Venjamin Kaverin, a saga (somewhat convoluted in the stage version) of long unstated and near-unrequited love eventually winning out over old rivalries. For the uninitiated, the admirable bilingual programme notes are indispensible though not entirely explicative.

Given the nature of musicals, the good and normal aspects of life which existed alongside the (often reported) bad of Soviet times, and the context in which the author himself was working, it is no surprise - nor any great crime - that the first half of the twentieth century that serves as backdrop is seen in terms of heroism, love and jealousy.

There is no lingering over Stalin's legacy, but some of the most enjoyable scenes light-heartedly portray difficult aspects of life under Communism which rang true with the audience. The crammed 'kommunalka' or communal apartment, with a range of personalities stepping on each other's toes, was well done.

Best of all was the scene in which the hero Sanya attempts to struggle through the bureaucracy of the (characteristically absurdly acronymed) government department GlavSevMorPut, only to have his way blocked by a series of officious secretaries busy doing nothing, pausing only to let through another man proffering a bribe in the form of chocolates.

Perhaps given Russia's strong technical education system, the promoters of the show are particularly proud of the substantial tonnage of high-tech stage sets, which work to impressive effect when a full-size plane lands on stage, and the lost Arctic exploration ship at the origin of the plot rises between icebergs during the finale.

More simple but effective are a series of rising and falling ramps employed during most of the performance, and especially effective serving as platforms which drift upwards as Sanya's train is about to depart. The movement intensifies the pressure as he hesitates over whether to finally proclaim his love for his beloved Katya before hauling himself up at the last possible second.

Some of the cast, notably Yuri Mazikhin as the brother at the root of all the troubles, sang well. I can't say much of the music left a lasting impression, but the dancing is generally well performed. The child street waifs do a good job, and the ethnic Nenets banging their sticks add a populist touch, albeit somewhat reminiscent of the group 'Stomp'.

Throughout, however, the smiles of the cast seem a little forced even by the artificial standard of musicals, and the strained energy of the tap dancing at the point where the Chechens stormed the stage was discomforting. The legacy of the events of last October is still tangible.

There has been a debate about whether Nord-Ost should have ceased out of respect for the victims, or the money for its revival better spent on compensating their families. There was certainly more than a little political opportunism in government efforts to help the relaunch, as an implicit justification of the existing approach to handling the crisis in Chechnya.

While the audience stood for a brief silence at the start of the show, it is also a little surprising that there is no mention in the programme - and no plaque the theatre - in memory of the dead.

The sad fact is that it will be difficult for future cast or audience alike ever to fully dissociate Nord-Ost from what happened. The positive side is that the quality of the musical makes it worth seeing in any case.


Andrew Jack is a British journalist based in Moscow and the author of The French Exception (Profile Books, London). He is also a member of the editorial board of Culturekiosque.com.

 

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