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Brief Encouter With ... Noah Birksted-Breen

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Raise a shot of vodka to the first Russian Theatre Festival, which opens at Soho Theatre tonight. The four day event will showcase new work from some of the most exciting young writers on the Bloc (so to speak), from Vladimir Zuev’s testimony-based play about Chechnya to the latest piece from Natalysa Kolyada, whose Belarussian company Free Theatre boasts Tom Stoppard as a patron.

Behind the event is Sputnik, the only UK theatre company exclusively producing Russian work. Its three previous productions at the Old Red Lion have all made Time Out Critic’s Choice and artistic director Noah Birksted-Breen is regularly included on ones-to-watch lists. He joins us over a plate of blinis to tell us more about this latest venture.

So, London’s first Russian Theatre Festival. Sputnik has definitely grown in stature since we last talked, Noah.
Yes. Someone the other day pointed out to me that we make the same amount of Russian work as the Royal Court and the RSC, which was great. It never feels that way as the resources we’ve got are so much smaller. But my aim is definitely to make us into a company which is always on the radar.

How did Sputnik and Soho Theatre come together?
Lisa Goldman artistic director at Soho has come to at least two of the productions we’ve done and we got chatting. We seemed a natural fit to Soho, which is known not just for new but international writing but we wanted something more than a festival, showing the full range of what’s going on in Russian theatre. I think with each of the three productions I’ve done in the past, I’ve consciously chosen a play that represents something very new coming out of Russia, something different to the previous production. And in the four plays here, the subject, genre and form are all very different.

How did you go about choosing which plays to include?
If often comes when I’m out in Russia seeing work and talking to people. I read a bunch of things, too. Natalysa Kolyada’s Dreams (1 Feb) is something I’ve wanted to do for a while. I met Natasha two or three years ago and was very aware of her company, Free Theatre. Then there’s Tityus The Irreproachable (2 Feb). Maksim Kurochkin is the most famous young playwright currently working in Russia but he’s never been done here. This play is about the information society, political control and the cult of loyalty. He even has flying CCTV cameras.

It sounds scarily relevant to the UK.
Yes, it’s both foreign and completely something we can understand. I love that kind of that play. Then, Vladimir Zuev’s Mums (3 Feb) was a play someone recommended to me in Ekaterinburg. It tackles Chechnya, which is still a big taboo in Russia, but combines real testimony from all these mums he met with this magic realist element. And Natasha’s Dreams (4 Feb) is the most accessible of them all – I’ve called it a dark rom-com. It’s by Yaroslava Pulinovich, who also had a reading during the RSC’s Russian season.

War, state control, terrorism, suicide though. That’s a dark set of themes.
There’s a lot of humour in there, too. But they are definitely addressing some really big and serious themes in response to what’s going on in Russia at the moment. The situation is superficially fine. There’s lots of money around. But journalists are still being shot in the streets and no one is being held accountable. It’s tragic.

What first sparked your interest in Russia?
My great-grandparents came from the region. They were Russian Jews, who emigrated around the time of the pogroms and came back to Europe in 1910. I never knew them directly but I’ve always felt my personal history tied in with them. So it was partly that and then when I was 14 or 15 and started reading Dostoevsky, I was absolutely blown away by this world and wanted to find out more. I did Russian GSCE, A-Level, then took it onto university and ended up living in Russia for a year.

How would you define the modern Russian sensibility?
They are a culture and a people who are still searching – the society has gone through all these tumultuous things and yet the fact is they’ve never had a democracy, only nominally for the last 15 years. These issues are urgent and Russians are passionate about them.

You’ve translated all four plays in the festival yourself – how much of a challenge was that?
It’s been the biggest challenge to date – to make sure each one is different while being aware of and true to each author’s voice. The plays changed a lot in rehearsals. I’m picking actors who I think really understand their roles and it’s a two-way process. A script shouldn’t be a static object.

The most visible Russians here in London are multi-millionaires like Roman Abramovich and Alexander Lebedev. Are you painting a truer portrait?
There is so much more to Russia than we know. We think of either the rich oligarchs or the poverty. I hope that every play I do brings a new perspective. I am definitely choosing the more political plays for this festival. There’s also going to be a photography exhibition, literature made available and some post-show discussions and sessions. I hope I’m bringing Russia to London for a week and that people come away knowing more.

Does being touted as one to watch bring unwanted pressure or help get things done?
It’s mainly helpful. It does put the pressure on but all publicity is good. More interest in the company makes it easier to get funding. It was such a big deal getting an Arts Council grant for this festival – immediately we knew we could do more work. I would love it to become an annual event and there are already plans in the pipeline for the next one. The aim is to invite over a Russian theatre company we’ve got to know over the last 18 years, as well as the best American and Australian companies working in the field. A truly international Russian Theatre Festival, that’s my dream.

The 1st Russian Theatre Festival runs at Soho Theatre from 1-4 February. More details here.


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