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De Russen! leaves you trembling

A relational drama of operatic proportions

> Tom Lanoye melds two plays by Anton Chekhov to create De Russen! (The Russians!)
> This engaging piece is a tour de force of theatrical innovation.

A soundtrack of rumbling discontent: Junkie XL’s music for Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s mega-production De Russen! does not let up for a second. Its sounds and rhythms drive the piece forwards, bolstering the emotional content. From the persistent angry beats which underpin the opening to the repetitive and wavering minimalism of the final scenes over five hours later, the score is so logical and organic that one is forced to wonder why every play does not have a soundtrack like this. It is arguably the most innovative feature of Tom Lanoye and Ivo van Hove’s production, but there are many others.

Lanoye has interwoven two Chekhov plays – Platonov (1878) and Ivanov (1887) – to form a epic relational drama of operatic proportions. There are two main characters, Platonov (Fedja van Huêt) and Ivanov (Jacob Derwig), but the remaining sixteen roles are scarcely any less important. Indeed, they could even be seen as more important. Van Hove focuses on the havoc that Ivanov and Platonov wreak in their discontent, and the hurt they cause to those who have loved them, and who once dreamt of an idyllic future or a fresh start. These are people who, against their better judgement, dared to hope. The two leads give formidable performances and are ably supported by the ensemble of sixteen players, each of whom has a gem of a role. They reveal their characters’ thwarted dreams and empty lives in a manner which can only be described as masterful.

Lanoye’s storyline may seem broad and protracted, but it is actually very focused, homing in on the smallest emotional detail. We meet Ivanov, once a bon viveur but now unhappily married to the sickly Sarah (Halina Reijn). He is a failed businessman who has been reduced to struggling to make ends meet. His guilt causes him to implode emotionally; he is cast into depression and despair. The young Sasja (Hélène Devos) is besotted with him, her feelings largely based on pity. This can only lead to disaster.

Platonov is similarly bitter and miserable. The former idealist who was going to change the world is now a dowdy middle-class schoolteacher. But unlike Ivanov, he does not blame himself. He continues to believe that he is entitled to a better existence. He cheats on his wife Alexandra with his childhood sweetheart Sofia, and in doing so manages to ruin not only the lives of both women but also those of his friend Sergei (Sofia’s husband), his close friend Anna Petrovna (who is in love with him) and the widow Mafutka Babakina, whose naiveté allows Platonov to take advantage of her with astonishing regularity.

Roeland Fernhout is disarming as the doleful Sergei, while Chris Nietvelt’s Anna is surprisingly feisty. But it is Marieke Heebink who steals the show as the awkward and dim-witted Babakina.

Van Hove places the action against an imposing set of concrete, chrome, graffiti and neon lights, representing the roof of a tenement building one moment, the dismal interior of a seedy nightclub the next, and then a deserted railway crossing. Deft, almost cinematic techniques create a series of ever-changing spaces.

Lanoye has been equally adept in his narrative; large-scale group scenes seamlessly give way to intimate encounters, bombastic outbursts alternate with moments of near silence to create a balanced harmony. The pace, rhythms and almost symphonic structure of De Russen! mean that it engages the audience throughout. Lanoye’s text is savagely poetic, his language luxuriant and lyrical: archaic one moment and twenty-first century the next. Despite the contemporary setting, De Russen! is not a modern social commentary, although there are some gentle jibes in this direction. Perhaps more would have been possible, but the piece stands up perfectly well as it is.

De Russen! is certainly a leap forwards in terms of theatrical innovation. Ivo van Hove uses music, lighting effects, projections and sheer spectacle to convey the complex and often very subtle themes of the piece. His work is highly entertaining, but nevertheless does full justice to the text and content. Van Hove has proven that it is indeed possible to fill over five hours with theatrical perfection, leaving the audience trembling with excitement. If there is any direct link with today’s politics, it is that the arts are now being forced to justify their existence. De Russen! does so beyond any shadow of doubt.

NRC Handelsblad - June 21th 2011





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