Springtime for Georgia

The Tbilisi Marionette Theatre evokes a city under siege - in miniature
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The Independent Culture

Two months ago, our TV screens were filled with Tbilisi and its "bloodless revolution". Our broadcasters' attention has now moved on to weightier celebrity matters, and Georgia's capital has again been consigned to the oblivion they think it deserves. But when the Tbilisi Marionette Theatre opens its season at the Barbican on 9 March, anyone who visits the Pit will get a reminder of the astonishing spirit of this impoverished but still romantic city. The shows - one set in the darkest days of Soviet rule, the other in the darkest days of the Second World War - both draw their strength from the stoical heroism of the Georgian people.

Their begetter is a man with an irrepressible twinkle in his eye, Rezo Gabriadze. Civil war forced him out of his native land 10 years ago, and when he returned he found himself haggling for electricity and winter boots; in the meantime, his company had disbanded. Neither he nor they expected to make a living from theatre when the economy was dead and the Mafia ruled. "They're not professionals," he says, "but in my opinion, everyone is an actor, even in the dentist's chair." The first show, The Autumn of My Springtime, is set in Gabriadze's home town of Kutaisi. "It's about life with no money, and about the fact that people with none are nicer than the people who have got some."

The Autumn of My Spring takes the form of a rake's progress whose anti-hero is a brightly coloured bird. His story is marked by a succession of scenes from provincial life: since this is the Soviet era, poverty, disease and corrupt bureaucracy bear down on the dramatis personae. The tiny figures on the stage-within-a-stage are made from "rubbish", but have been modelled with such love that our suspension of disbelief is easy. The puppeteers' faces are startlingly white in the surrounding gloom: this imbues their dolls with even greater fragility and pathos. The music is a mix of Stalin-era Georgian folk-song and ancient chants, urged along by violin, accordion and the Caucasian version of the oboe, the duduk.

The other show is magniloquently titled The Battle of Stalingrad, but the reality, a worm's-eye view of the war, is utterly disarming. There are conjuring-tricks with perspective and scale, and moments when Gabriadze's miniature landscape suggests huge events: a procession of tiny helmets on baking tins might not be the most obvious means for evoking marching armies, but that is what they do here.

Perhaps the key lies in how the piece evolved. Gabriadze had been given a large theatre in Moscow, and been asked to do something in it with Russian relevance. "That was at a time when civil wars were happening all over. I met a friend in the street who asked what I was doing, so just to shut him up I said - for no obvious reason - that I was going to stage the Battle of Stalingrad. A week later, I remembered what I'd said, and thought - maybe I actually will do that show."

Tbilisi Marionette Theatre, Barbican, London EC1 (0845 120 7550) 9-20 March