NEW STAGES : A chill wind from the West

A Parisian play is shocking St Petersburg, reports John O'Mahony from Russia
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The Independent Culture
It was right there on the facing page of the programme, a delicately phrased but brazenly unequivocal apologia from the artistic director of the Maly Theatre for the latest addition to his repertoire. This is the first time that Lev Dodin has entrusted his actors into foreign non-Maly hands: Lluis Pasqual of the Theatre de l'Odeon in Paris directs this production. And the work itself - Bernard Marie Koltes's vicious contemporary fable about a celebrated French killer, Roberto Zucco, couldn't be further from the usual staple diet of sturdy Russian classics and literary adaptations. "I would never choose to direct this play," Dodin booms in his programme note, before adding with a certain disingenuous guile, "it seems to tell European people something very significant and painful. Perhaps it will be significant and painful for us in the future, even if it isn't now."

Though I can't be completely sure what those around me felt - they didn't walk out, which is a good sign with Russian audiences - everything about Pasqual's sparkling production looked fine to these European eyes. Written in 1988 while Koltes was dying of Aids, the play has a ragged, anxious, unfinished feel, with anaemic, pared-down language (Maria Zonina's Russian translation is mathematically faithful to the original French) which conjures up an atmosphere of rarefied amorality.

The action begins with Zucco's escape from a high-security prison - where he has been incarcerated for killing his father - and follows him through a series of disjointed, picaresque scenes: first, the unprovoked strangulation of his mother; then the seduction of a young virgin; the stabbing of an inspector; a siege involving the needless murder of a teenage boy; the young girl's voluntary descent into prostitution and, finally, Zucco's apprehension. Dramatic tension comes almost entirely from our speculation about who will make the next arbitrary exit.

Pasqual considers Roberto Zucco "a documentary poem" and has framed the story in a huge electronic proscenium, studded with TV sets. Splattered with porn-video clips, shots of the Chechen war and simultaneous broadcasts of the play, these are used to graft a documentary texture on to the action.

The tactic is surprisingly successful at showing us how we inadvertently lionise criminal superstars - just consider the amount of media coverage given to Neilsen / Dahmer / West - and how this morbid fascination is piped into our brains.

This is an unusual choice for the Maly. But for most Russians the ideas portrayed are far from new: "I want to make myself Napoleon," Raskolnikov said of his murderous ambitions in Crime and Punishment; and in this increasingly harsh and violent city, people realise now that they are unlikely to see their existence mirrored by lavish, traditional productions. Personally, Dodin may not want to acknowledge this disturbing fragment of the present, or to see it in his theatre. At least now his audiences can.