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Do you speak Russian? You don't have to

Marina Warner visits the Gogol centre

‘Can you speak Russian? No? So why go to the theatre when you can’t understand a word?’ My challenger (English) was incredulous that I’d asked one of the Russian helpers on the British Council tour, whose mother had been a principal dancer with the Kirov, to find me, if at all possible, a ticket to a play. There was a performance of Anna Akhmatova’s poetry, she’d told me. The legendary Alla Demidova would be performing; the director was Kirill Serebrennikov, a daring force in the Russian avant-garde; and it would be taking place in the Gogol Centre, a former warehouse designed in industrial cool with gorgeous Constructivist lettering that makes the word Гоголь look like the limbs of an Alexandra Exter puppet.
It was the premiere, packed with an alternative-looking, very stylish crowd. Demidova drifted inconsequentially onto the stage, then struck a pose, raised her head, stiffened her back, extended her jewelled hands, and became the Akhmatova of the portraits and the photographs. Her performance was dramatising some of the best known raging laments: ‘Requiem’, ‘Northern Elegies’, ‘Poem without a Hero’. Ferocious music rose from the three harps on stage, drums and a huge gong; behind her, montages of newsreels and photographs flickered – there was Stalin giving a speech, looking much younger than usual, there were trudging marchers, refugees on icefloes, bombs, wreckage, more ice, more wretches in the long desperate siege of Leningrad, the stirring hopes, the dashed hopes, the dead and dying. Demidova was proclaiming: her Akhmatova was an angel of history, a witness and chronicler of terrible times, of her own sufferings and many others’, her savaged country’s elegist and funeral orator.
Suddenly a glorious idol of a girl appeared: a dancing soubrette in scarlet lipstick, a short skating skirt and black stockings, with a star halo radiating in spikes from her head. Was this Akhmatova’s double, her inner self, her child-soul, ‘the visitor from the wrong side of the mirror’? Perhaps she was the answer to the question:
What miracle do you see in a Siberian blizzard?
What shimmering mirage around the circle of the moon?
As I watched, and the torrent of Russian tumbled over me, I didn’t struggle. I let it carry me as here and there a word – usually a proper noun (Hamlet, Paris, Neva, Don) – glinted in the spate. Then, after nearly two hours, without a break and without once leaving the stage, Demidova dropped her head into her hands and lapsed into silence; the lights went out and the house erupted in a standing ovation. The whole experience was dreamlike and fragmented, but filled with tableaux of far more lucid brilliance than any dream.

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