Street Life: Don't speak English in Moscow - unless it's Pushkin


MY LOCAL municipal leisure centre has gone ahead with a stage production of a Russian classic performed in English, which is remarkable, given that Russian outrage at the bombing of Yugoslavia has reached such a pitch that foreigners are being advised for their own safety not to speak English on the streets of Moscow.

Jim Patterson, a Scot living in Moscow, and Artyom Kretov, a Russian, play opposite each other in Mozart and Salieri, a tragedy by Alexander Pushkin, whose 200th birthday the Russians are celebrating this year. The team hopes to take the production to the fringe of the Edinburgh Festival.

The play's director is Dmitry Semakin. Like many Russians in the once- subsidised arts, Dmitry, a graduate of Moscow's prestigious State Institute of Theatre Arts, is now unable to earn a living in his chosen field. He has a day job in an advertising agency while drama has become a passionate hobby.

Dmitry has been dreaming of Edinburgh ever since he went to the festival as a visitor. He thought it would be wonderful to take Pushkin there in the poet's anniversary year.

But Pushkin is to the Russians what Shakespeare is to English speakers and it is not easy to translate a genius. It was only when Dmitry met William Rowsey, a British drama student in Moscow, and read his translation of Mozart and Salieri, one of Pushkin's "Little Tragedies", that he saw the play might travel.

The production had its premiere last week at the "Club on Yermolova Street", run by Yelena Usachova, a former atomic physicist who now offers culture to the young because she believes in the "saving power of beauty.

"With this awful war going on, it is very important not to break the threads of our cultural co-operation," she said. She was worried that nobody would turn up, but the hall filled to half capacity with Russian teachers of English and their students.

The programme explained that the cast had worked from "sheer enthusiasm" with a budget of "0 roubles, 0 kopecks". Perhaps the lack of scenery and costumes helped the director in his stated attempt to "make Pushkin contemporary".

Jim and Artyom just played in the modern, black and white clothes they could find in their own wardrobes. The only props were a grand piano, a wine bottle and a tape recorder into which the talented and hardworking Salieri poured all his jealous feelings about Mozart's superior genius. "In England, you have done productions of Shakespeare on bare stages in 20th-century dress but this is something new for us," said Dmitry. "We have made a holy icon of Pushkin and are afraid to experiment with his work."

The story of Mozart and Salieri is well known. While writing his Requiem, Mozart is haunted by a figure in black. It is Death himself. But has Salieri really poisoned his friend? "Genius and evil are two things incompatible," says Mozart trustingly. Are they?

I had some difficulty in recognising the English of Artyom, who played Salieri. By contrast, the Russians in the audience understood him but were thrown by the native intonations of Jim in the role of Mozart.

Jim, who came from Edinburgh to study at film school here, said he had played parts in Russian - a collective farmer, a male prostitute - so he knew what an achievement it was for Artyom to act in a foreign language.

After the show, some of the teachers from the audience gathered with the actors for tea and a talk about how the play could be improved. Everyone liked Artyom's Russian accent, as it highlighted the fact that Salieri was twisted and an outsider, but it was suggested that he speak more slowly for clarity.

Someone said Mozart's death should be made more dramatic. "Can't you flood the stage with blood red light?" "We can't afford red light," said the director. "We could overturn the grand piano." "Don't you dare," laughed the club manager.

One of the teachers spoke interestingly about the themes of Mozart and Salieri. "It's about ruined friendship," he said.

Ruined friendship. Russia and the West are entering a new cold war over Yugoslavia and yet in the apolitical world of the arts, friendship goes on. Now all Dmitry, Artyom and Jim need is a sponsor to pay their air fares to Edinburgh.

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