WHERE the Georgian Film Actors Studio is concerned, you have to expect the unexpected. In 1988 they were the hit of the Fringe with an irreverent and witty production of Moliere's Don Juan that was everything but the straightforward Don Juan. This year they return to Edinburgh with a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream that has little if anything to do with the play. When they say they are arriving on Sunday morning, you have to expect them to appear considerably later; when they say their inspirational 72-year-old director Michail Tumanishvili will be with them, you shouldn't be surprised to discover that he has stayed at home.
By Sunday evening, the neat piece of paper in the Assembly Rooms press office detailing their activities the next day - 8.40am fit-up, 1.40pm rehearsal, 6pm performance - is already looking optimistic. By Monday morning the performance has been cancelled and when I arrive at 2pm to watch them in rehearsal Chris Reece- Bowen, the press officer, warns me that they are still at a 'rather technical' stage. In the hall itself men are laying strips of white material on an empty stage, while the cast, huddled around the auditorium, are smoking pungent cigarettes and talking urgently. Oblivious to all this noisy chaos, one actor lies awkwardly across three plastic chairs, deep in sleep.
Keti Dolidze, a warm, effusive woman and founder member of the company, attempts to describe the charismatic Tumanishvili and the process by which he arrives at his maverick productions. 'He never just takes the text of the play and performs it on the stage,' she explains. 'He always rehearses and improvises around the play. This way he brings you to its deepest level.'
Tumanishvili emphasised the theatricality of Don Juan by placing an idiosyncratic prompter on stage, who intervened more and more as the evening wore on. This time he underlines the themes of dreams, love and age in A Midsummer Night's Dream by making the whole play take place within one of Theseus' dreams.
It is now 3pm. Chris Reece-Bowen, looking pale, returns to remind the company that they have a photocall with the national press at 7.30pm. Will they have finished their rehearsal in time? A conference is held and Manana Antadze, the dramaturg, reports back. 'There is a problem because the actor who plays Oberon has not shaved and he doesn't want his picture taken without shaving.' Reece- Bowen, mindful of a previous occasion in Glasgow when none of the cast turned up for a crucial photocall and the translator had vanished to see a Stevie Wonder concert, departs in search of a razor and shaving cream.
In a corner nearby, one Assembly Rooms technician has given up, found an actor who speaks English and is deep in debate about the conflict in Georgia. Keti Dolidze explains that Tumanishvili nearly always directs classical plays, 'because he thinks they are the best way to perform about reality today. We have a proverb: 'When the gods are shooting, the muses are silent.' So in our country, because of the war, nobody is writing. Because we have such a disaster in Georgia we have chosen this play about harmony. The main idea running through any good piece of Georgian theatre is that life is good. Even when you are suffering terribly, you should sing and show to the world your love of life. The production should be very cheerful, very vivid and when it is finished, even if it is a big tragedy, you should feel hope. We never accept death.'
'The first performance of this production was on 26 December last year,' recalls Manana Antadze. 'It was very cold, there was no heating in the theatre and the audience were in their overcoats. They were very depressed because of the trouble in the country. But by the end of the evening the mood was warm and joyful. In that sense, the work is political.'
Antadze initially offered to help Tumanishvili part-time as dramaturg, but soon abandoned her job at the university to be with him all the time. Why does he have this effect on people? 'I don't know.' Does he ever get angry? 'Oh, yes, he is always angry.' So do people hate him? 'No, they adore him. Everyone adores him.'
'I have acted for him many times,' says Keti Dolidze, 'and I can tell you that you don't know yourself how you create a part. He tries to bring an actor to the point where the actor thinks, 'Oh, my goodness, I am so talented to have thought of this']'
His other secret seems to be his youthful spirit. Everyone insists that, although he is 72, and although he has based his interpretation of the ageing Theseus on himself, in spirit he is the youngest member of the company. Hope on a general level and youthful outlook on a personal one are the guiding messages of this show. 'He is a joker,' says Rusiko Bolkvadze, who plays Helena in The Dream and played the prompter in Don Juan. 'He is old by age, but inside this old man is sitting a tiny Puck.'
It is 6pm. On stage they are now experimenting with lighting and a great deal of shouting breaks out. Bolkvadze turns to look at them. 'It's all right, they are only discussing something,' she says. So what does it sound like when they are really arguing? 'Atomic war,' she says, blithely.
'A Midsummer Night's Dream': Assembly Rooms, 54 George St (venue 3) to 4 Sept (not 31 Aug), 031-226 2428. The company will be appearing in a benefit for the wounded on both sides of the war in Georgia on Tue 31 Aug at Assembly in the Meadows, details to be confirmed
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