A 19th-century Italian farce performed in Russian with Latvian surtitles? I’m in

My colleague was very much ‘voting with his eyelids’

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The Independent Online

If you happen to have a column in The Independent Magazine, you have a responsibility (and I’m paraphrasing my editor here) to find interesting and diverse things to write about. And that’s why I found myself sat in a theatre in Riga on Wednesday night watching the first half of a 19th-century Italian farce performed in Russian with Latvian surtitles. I just don’t think I’d have been there otherwise.

I’m back from Eastern Europe now – I’ve already had maybe four Prets and listened to three Radio 5 Live phone-ins. But until Thursday I was very much ‘in Riga’. I’d gone there to write with a colleague, and very productive and chilly it was, too. On the last night, as a treat, we decided to do an activity. He was keen to watch Dallas Buyers Club at the Forum. I wanted to watch Chelovek I Djentljmen at the Rigas Krievu Theatre. It ended with a scuffle in the snow and me holding his throat with my mitten and shouting the word culture. We were off to the theatre.

In Eastern Europe, going to the theatre is a big event. People really dress up for it. There’s tons of fur and lipstick, and as you go in people take your coat and hang it up, and the ladies adjust themselves in full-length mirrors before taking their seats. My colleague and I wore snowboots and jumpers and our hair was lank with days of writing. We collected several snooty looks as we shuffled along row YY and sat our arses down in seats 21 and 22. Playtime.

I’ve had no training as a reviewer, and I don’t really see myself as particularly qualified to review theatre, but here goes. As far as I could tell – through the fog of Russian – the star of the show was a man who looked like a fat, Slavonic Terry Venables. He seemed to have found himself in a hotel reception with lots of doors, and another man who had a flirtatious, Mimi Labonq-ish maid got Venables to maybe write a play for him. I don’t think Venables wanted to do it, but his hands were tied. Venables’ wife(?) was pregnant and his son was a dork and his mum was deaf and between them they made a proper Horlicks of putting this play together. An Italian general with a huge nervous tic saw a rehearsal and possibly took offence, and then the doors came into their own as the company ran in and out of them for three or four minutes. The fella next to me loved it.

My colleague was very much ‘voting with his eyelids’. Tired from a hard afternoon at his laptop, this incessant gobbledegook wasn’t giving him anywhere near the amount of stimulation he needed. He succumbed. He slept quietly, like a dormouse, occasionally smiling when the audience laughed at some of Venables’ schtick. Once or twice he would begin to snore and the elegant madame to his right would stuff a beautifully varnished nail into his ribs and he would lick his lips and quieten down. Mostly he was out, though. Dreaming. Lucky sod. I hunkered down and got through to half-time.

Say what you like about Latvian interpretations of dated Italian farces, Rigans know how to throw an interval. The drink of choice is champagne, and the beautifully-turned-out beasts queued patiently for a flute, and a snack to boot. There was an abundance of little pies and pots of Russian salad and gherkins. The locals chowed these back and warbled their anticipation of the second half. My colleague and I necked bubbly, weighed up our options and collected our coats.

Out on the street, my colleague stamped his feet in the snow and fired up his data roaming. He was sleepy, cold and confused. He showed me his screen. If we hurried we could catch the last hour of Dallas Buyers Club at the Forum. It felt like the right call. I could always Wikipedia the play when I got home. We heaved on our gloves and hats and trudged west.