CLOWNING / Fool's paradise: Sergei Shashelev worked by day as a metal shearer and by night as a clown. Now he's a star. Tom Morris reports from St Petersburg

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Instead of putting on a Christmas panto like everyone else, the Hackney Empire is this week showing a zany clown double act from St Petersburg called The Academy of Fools.

'Clowning is very important in Russia,' says the Academy's precocious boy-director Victor Kramer. 'Western audiences are much more open in the theatre, but they forget everything the minute they leave. In Russia, the clown's job is to give the audiences something to take home. We are used to hiding what we feel.' This is the environment in which the founder of the Academy, Slava Polunin, became an international star. But things are changing in Russia, even for clowns.

Two years ago, Victor Kramer turned his back on the huge-scale state theatres of St Petersburg and built a small stage in the living room of his communal flat. He rehearsed there with his own private theatre company and shot to fame with a series of harsh farcical satires for stage and television. His apartment is like a crossroads for the cultures that meet in St Petersburg. The bathroom and a stony 1940s kitchen are shared with three other families. Beside the flickering gas stove an ancient white-haired woman sits solidly, a cup of tea wedged in her hand. Victor breezes past into his heavily padlocked bedroom, tricked out with multi-system videos and remote control TV. He is a dollar success in the land of the rouble.

For Kramer, clowns are as important in the new Russia as the old. In 1990, he directed a stage version of Jacques Prevert's film Les Enfants du Paradis (about the 19th-century pantomime clown Debureau) and hasn't been able to leave clowns alone since. 'It's simple,' he says. 'When we threw out the communists, we also threw out our system of heroes and dreams. It's like that in the film. All the world is falling apart and each person has to find his own system. Even the criminals. There is no bad or good.' And the clown? 'He above all has his own system. He knows he cannot live in the society he sees so he builds his own world in his soul. He says he is a child of the moon.'

Into Kramer's sitting room walks Sergei Shashelev, a deaf-and-dumb clown actor who is Polunin's show-stealing stooge at the Empire. As he discovers what we are talking about, his fingers climb to his shirt-front in fond recollection of the distinctive buttons of Debureau's stage uniform. 'He says that his world is made up of tiny things,' translates Kramer. 'Of movements to his collar, his buttons - these smallest details of the physical world. All clowns build their own worlds. His is built from life.'

Shashelev moved to Leningrad in the late Seventies to work in the Baltoski plant, the only factory in the city with the right to invite workers from other parts of Russia. His invitation was to work as a metal shearer, where the noise was so atrocious that only deaf workers were employed. He was given a municipal flat and joined the pantomime club in the local society for the deaf. In 1981, Slava Polunin saw him perform and invited him to join his company. Shashelev began working nights with the great clown and days at the factory. Finally he joined Polunin's international touring company, winning prizes in the States and Czechoslovakia.

So does Shashelev feel like a child of the moon? Try asking that through two interpreters - one English-Russian, one Russian-sign language. You're better off watching his act. In the show at the Hackney Empire, he and Polunin play the last two people alive on earth. On one level, he is the simpleton foil to Polunin's clown-wizard. On another he is the quintessential dreamer. He wears an enormous dark cloak and a Cyrano de Bergerac wig and audiences fall into his lap by the hatful. Oh, and one other thing. He can't hear it if you clap. 'The best audience we ever had was in Holland,' he signs. 'They were deaf. At the end of the show they didn't clap, they waved their hands in the air. It was like a sea of waving hands.' So if you like him, you know what to do.

'Academy of Fools', Hackney Empire, 291 Mare St, London E8 (081-985 2424) 7pm to 9 Jan (not 22, 24-26, 31 Dec, 3-5 Jan)

(Photographs omitted)