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Puppet Theatre :
The Battle of Stalingrad

By Andrew Jack

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.

While puppet 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 show.

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.

The 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 the world.

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.

With 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 profiles.

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 opposite senses.

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.

Most 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.

In 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.

Gabriadze 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.



Coming 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).



Andrew 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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