Theatre of Gulags, VAULT Festival

by Luisa De la Concha Montes

Theatre of Gulags tells a story of art and resistance within USSR labour camps. Panning across five detached, yet narratively linked stages, this theatrical installation follows the story of four artists: theatre director Les Kurbas, director Natalya Sats, musician Vadim Kozin and writer and puppeteer Hava Volovich.

At the beginning of the production, audience members are told that they will be led through the story through audio and light. The composition of the space is divided in five sections, four of which use film projections, and props to tell the story of each character. The first stage, focuses on Kurbas, who was imprisoned in a labour camp in 1933 and subsequently shot in 1937. The projection details his theatre projects, emphasising the adaptation of King Lear that he was never able to finish. His stage includes a table with drawings, cut-outs of fabric, and a model of a theatre containing characters made out of white paper. In the wall behind it, some theatre costumes are hanging from hooks.  The second stage tells the story of Natalya Satz, who was arrested in 1937 for being married to ‘traitor’ Israel Veitser. Her stage has a table with music sheets, archival photographs and drawings. The third stage, which recounts the journey of Vadim Kozin who was exiled as a result of the regime’s homophobia, includes two wooden bed stands with a beautifully embroidered cloth draping over them. The audio of his story is overlapped with his singing voice and the noise of a moving train, emphasising the strain of his exile. The final stage is on Hava Volovich, who tells us how her daughter died in the Gulag. Her stage shows a group of cribs draped in white cloth, with small dolls made of corn leaves. At the end of the venue, there is a row with church-like seats and a stage.

Each stage is intricate and detailed, with beauty and care emanating from each object. Tactility is part of the experience, as we are told at the beginning that touching is allowed. This, added to the dark and humid environment of the Vaults, creates a feeling of entrapment and fragility that sharpens our emotional reception to each story. Even though the stage design is original, practically speaking it was not as effective, as it meant that some audience members had a better view than others. There is also a sense of disorientation and confusion throughout the whole run, partly caused by the movement between stages, and partly caused by the amount of information given. Each story is told with such attention to detail that the practical issues, such as audio and visual restrictions, were unfortunate, as they got in the way of grasping the whole picture.

The final part of the story brings the four actors that personified each character to the stage. We see them as they run through their lines of King Lear inside the Gulag. Tension grows and absurdity takes hold of the cast as they slowly realise the futility of their play. Their rehearsal changes tonality, and we witness grief and existentialism at full strength. The final scene feels a bit too long, and the use of King Lear – which is not the most accessible text, detracts from the main message. However, despite the confusing overtones and its practical issues, Theatre of Gulags is a powerful inspection of the past that cleverly utilises verbatim theatre and archival elements to re-awaken untold narratives.

More than anything, Theatre of Gulags is a rich memorial. As we leave the venue, and as Vadim and Hava keep on dancing, we are reminded that that which survives the war is not the body; but the heart. The relentless rhythm of their dance, which continues even without audience members in the room, allows us to connect the past with the present. It does not seem to be a coincidence that the installation was performed two days after the one-year anniversary of the war in Ukraine. As we leave, we become aware that resistance never exists in a vacuum; like unresolved pain, resistance exists, with or without witnesses.

Theatre of Gulags runs through 26 February.

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