Anna Yablonskaya: Playwright acclaimed far beyond her native Ukraine for the acuity of her dramatic vision
Monday 07 March 2011
In her short career, Anna Yablonskaya became one of the most accomplished post-Soviet playwrights and her plays attracted attention and stagings across Russia and abroad, winning many awards thanks to the acuity of her dramatic vision.
Her striking looks were crowned with a mane of Russian fairy-tale blonde hair.
She was born in Odessa in Ukraine, but she wrote in Russian and had her earliest successes there, at Teatr.doc, a small basement theatre founded by a group of experimental playwrights. At home it was a different matter: she wrote that Ukrainian literary managers "cross themselves at the mention of new writing" and described Odessa as a city dramatic in real life but theatrically dull. Nevertheless, she never abandoned it for Russia and was an active member of the Odessa-based South Russian Writers' Union. She also supported Vladimir Neklyayev, the imprisoned Belarusian writer and former presidential candidate.
Yablonskaya's father was a journalist and compiler of collections of Russian satire and humour. Yablonskaya started writing early: she had a play performed at her school, while her poetry was recited in assembly and started to be published when she was in her early teens. She also acted, joining the Tour-de-force company, which staged her play The Door. She drew on these experiences for her play Bermudskii kvadrat ("Bermuda Square"). It was there that she met her husband, though he was not an artist but the manager of a shipping company.
Before embarking on a full-time writing career she studied law in Odessa and worked in marketing, journalism and public relations. Her poetry appeared both in print and online journals including Prolog, October and Interpoeziya; her theatrical career was short but intense and in less than a decade she wrote around 20 plays.
The Eurasia Drama Competition in Ekaterinburg regularly presented her work, including Pismo v zoopark ("Letters to the Zoo", 2005), Kosmos ("Space", 2006), and Videokamera, ("Camcorder", 2008), whose graceful blank verse contrasts with the study of a man at odds with modern consumerist society. Elsewhere, the 15 miniature stories of Monodialogi ("Monodialogues", 2005) won prizes, and overseas her work was recognised in Utrecht and Wiesbaden.
Though she considered herself neither a feminist nor a controversialist, her chosen subject matters couldn't help but be both. Family Scenes charts the effects of a soldier's post-traumatic stress on his wife and son and the woman's lover. After one reading there was a discussion at which she was criticised for the "unfair" portrayal of the soldier, with the implication that showing how he was damaged by war was disrespectful.
Rather than dismissing this, Yablonskaya tried to engage with the criticism in a way that was typical of the humility that she never lost. Similarly, after a reading of her last play The Pagans, generally seen as her greatest, she went on stage to discuss what she saw as its shortcomings.
Russian writing sometimes tends to gloom to the point of hopelessness, but Yablonskaya, though her depiction of life could be severe and unsentimental, held fast to a compassionate outlook and the belief that things could turn out for the best. The critic Pavel Rudnev observed that, in her plays, somehow "the depressive, dehumanising world reverses itself, like a falling cat, and lands solidly on its feet." Her last blog entry, a poem, mused about attempts to find order in the world:
Book-keeping has drowned in chaos, grief,
The same signs always mean different things
Regularities are illusions. The rain falls
Soon there'll be a holiday. Holidays must be
Friends noted that she had, recently seemed sombre. Her blog entry of 21 December read: "It seems to me that I have very little time left." A month later she died in the terrorist explosion at Moscow's Domodedovo airport, having flown in to collect an award from the journal Iskusstvo Kino for a film adaptation of The Pagans. Her non-appearance was ascribed to travel problems and it was only when her husband's phone call was answered by a member of the security services that the truth became clear.
Last summer she spent a month at an international writers' workshop at London's Royal Court Theatre, where the director, Elyse Dodgson described her as "one of the most brilliant, promising writers we have ever worked with." In April the theatre will give a reading of The Pagans in the International Playwrights season.
Anna Grigoryevna Yablonskaya, playwright: born Odessa 20 July 1981; married Artem Mashutin (one daughter); died Moscow 24 January 2011.
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