THEATRE / Pulling together: The Maly Theatre - Manchester Forum & On Tour

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The Independent Culture
Just why is the Maly Theatre so good? While the St Petersburg company's latest visit becomes a triumphal progress (with rave notices in London for its new Cherry Orchard and standing ovations in Manchester - not a common accolade - for Stars in the Morning Sky and Brothers and Sisters), audiences and critics alike seek to identify the essential element of its work. One could mention the fluency of the ensemble work, the familiarity that grows out of company life under the director Lev Dodin, and the longevity of the productions. But it also comes, I think, from the Maly's agonising reappraisal of a great 20th- century idea, one dyed especially deeply into Russia's history.

'We've been building since 1930 but we only live once,' complains a peasant in Brothers and Sisters. The first part (of two) begins in 1945 in a celebratory atmosphere. Two young men, Mikhail and Yegorsha, have returned to their commune from logging. The war is near its end, better times in prospect. But life fails to improve. However hard they work, they must defer to the greater project as the Party defines it, their grain sent elsewhere, their logging quotas increased.

This is not presented as a simple conflict between liberal individualism and state oppression because the most forceful images are communal. The stage is often filled with the commune's inhabitants in all their active variety, people who live co-operatively but have been co-opted into a scheme that transcends not only their own immediate circumstances but even their own lifetimes.

Maly's work does not suggest that the quest for 'something else' can or should be abandoned; it simply demands that the heedless moment should be respected.

In The Stars in the Morning, the prostitutes cleared from Moscow's streets during the 1980 Olympics become excited as they glimpse the Olympic flame, and their irrational joy is entirely infectious. This kind of collective climax shows the Maly's stagecraft at its most impressive - and seductive. In the wedding in Brothers and Sisters, the crowd choreography, design, lighting and sound are every bit as manipulative as, say, Les Miserables. This is the intoxication of the theatrical moment.

Yet, against this, there is the discomforting conclusion to Part 1 in which Mikhail has to find his way off stage with the house lights already on. Here is another side of theatre, pitilessly deleting its own images, and so pointing its audience with particular abruptness towards the future.

At Glasgow Citizens & Tramway (041-429 0022), 29 Apr-15 May. Then tours to Newcastle and Nottingham