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Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg return to London with Life and Fate and Uncle Vanya

Preview by Lizzie Guilfoyle

THE legendary Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg – described by Peter Brook as ‘the finest ensemble theatre in Europe’ – returns to London this spring for a strictly limited engagement for the first time in over a decade.

They will present the UK première of Vasily Grossman’s epic novel, Life and Fate (May 8 to May 20), and reprise their celebrated production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya (May 15 to May 17, 2018) at London’s Theatre Royal Haymarket.

Both productions will be performed in Russian with English surtitles.

Under the artistic directorship of Lev Dodin – one of the most celebrated theatre practitioners working today – the Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg has become one of the greatest theatres in the world. During his 35 year tenure many of Dodin’s shows have won international awards including state prizes of Russian and the USSR, Golden Mask Awards and a Lawrence Olivier Award (becoming the first international company to do so for Stars in the Morning Sky, 1989). In 2000, he received the European Theatre Award.

Adapted for the stage for the very first time from Vasily Grossman’s celebrated novel, banned because of the parallels it drew between Nazism and Soviet Communism, Life and Fate is a sweeping panorama of Soviet Society, an epic tale of a country told through the fate of a single Jewish family, the Shtrum’s.

From Nazi concentration camps to the Gulags of Siberia and the Soviet nuclear programme, as the battle of Stalingrad looms large the characters must work out their destinies in a world torn by ideological tyranny and war.

This critically acclaimed production, winner of the Golden Mask for best play, has toured around the world since its première in 2007, shining a light on the heart of 20th century darkness.

On presenting a draft prior to publication, Grossman’s magnum opus, Life and Fate, was seized by the KGB. The former Red Army newspaper war correspondent, (championed by his fellow soldiers for the honesty of his writing) was told by the Communist Party’s chief ideologist Mikhail Suslov that the novel would be unpublishable for at least 200 years. Its astonishing act of wartime truth-telling and the parallels it drew between the Soviet Union and the Third Reich were deemed unacceptably anti-Soviet. Grossman became in effect a persona non grata.

The KGB raided Grossman’s flat and seized manuscripts, notes and even the ribbon from the typewriter on which the text had been written. Unbeknownst to authorities, Grossman had smuggled two copies to acquaintances in the literary world. He died in poverty, forgotten and ignored in 1964, but his masterpiece would live on. Microfilmed and smuggled to the West, it was first published in 1980 to critical acclaim. France’s Le Monde hailed it ‘the greatest Russian novel of the 20th Century.’ Military historian Antony Beevor described it as the War and Peace of the Stalinist era.

Lev Dodin discovered the novel in 1985 whilst guest directing in Helsinki. He says: “I still remember vividly that I ‘gulped down’ the novel in two nights and that I was in absolute shock. I didn’t even think before reading it was possible to write about our life in such a way.” Before its world première in Paris in spring 2007, the company spent three years rehearsing the piece, researching the period in great detail, visiting Auschwitz, and eventually premiering the piece in Norilsk, a city in the very heart of Gulag territory.

Dodin continues: “Grossman’s Life and Fate is in fact a simple family story, and it presents us with a vast panorama of the events and problems of the 20th and 21st centuries. In our everyday lives we still encounter the modern guises of fascism, communism, nationalism, totalitarianism, extremism, cruelty and lack of freedom. In spite of everything, people still continue to live, love and hope.

“Suffering has no nationality – I think this is why Grossman’s novel is becoming so popular – again – in Europe and across the world.”

Uncle Vanya, Chekhov’s tragicomic masterpiece of dashed dreams and thwarted and eternal love returns to London in Lev Dodin’s definitive interpretation of this classic play.

Vanya, together with his niece Sonya, has sacrificed his life managing the estate of Professor Serebryakov, his former brother-in-law and Sonya’s father. But when the Professor returns from the city with his glamorous young wife Yelena, tensions spiral as their world is thrown upside down.

Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg’s Royal Theatre, Haymarket season is presented by Oliver King and Ekaterina Kashyntseva for Belka Productions with the support of Roman Abramovich, Sir Leonard Blavatnik, Yuri Shefler and Alexander Machkevitch.

Also at the Theatre Royal Haymarket: Frozen, Bryony Lavery’s award-winning play starring Suranne Jones (February 9 to May 5, 2018).