It is a bright summer’s day, but inside the Savoy Theatre the lighting is dimmed, with heavy velvet curtains, a long bar and stairs winding upwards to a second floor. Empty of its evening revellers, the space is moody and atmospheric, an apt choice of location for the urban hell chronicled in Plasticine by award-winning Russian playwright Vassily Sigarev. Corcadorca Theatre Company is staging this as part of Cork Midsummer Festival 2010, which starts next week. Directed by Pat Kiernan as a promenade production, it will allow the audience to follow the characters around the building, tracked by CCTV cameras installed to reflect the dystopian society within which Sigarev’s subjects live. This is not designed to make an audience feel comfortable: the drama features a male rape and a porn movie, and the festival programme warns of “nudity, swearing and explicit sexual content”.
Most of the morning’s rehearsal has been occupied with deciding on the practicalities of the opening scene, during which protagonist Maksim (played by Caoilfhionn Dunne) makes plasticine at his bedroom table. The scene is being projected onto two big screens, so that the audience can see and understand what is taking place, and director and actor spend much time considering how the various elements – including Cormac O’Connor’s original sound design – are working both on and off screen. It’s two weeks before the play’s first preview, and for Kiernan it is still relatively early to be discussing the internal life of the drama, which he says is just beginning to reveal itself as cast and crew get to grips with what is often a highly theatrical, intricate piece of work.
“The stage directions alone are extraordinary,” says Kiernan, “I love reading them. There’s one that talks about a black cat that walks in front of Maksim, stays there and looks at him unblinking and not smiling… The cat, like!”
Kiernan came across Sigarev’s drama indirectly, after actor Gina Moxley, with whom he had worked last year on Corcadorca’s production of MedEia, suggested he read Sigarev’s second play, Black Milk. He went on to read Plasticine, which he liked even better. The play fitted into a general sense he had of wanting to do work that said something about where Irish society finds itself today, in that it presents a contemporary world that is more dysfunctional than anything most people here could imagine. “To me the significance of it was considering how bad we say things are here, compared to other countries,” says Kiernan. “In Russia the divide between the haves and the have-nots is so much more exaggerated.”
For Kiernan, it is vital that the play should be set in Russia, and not in some abstract dystopia onto which an Irish audience can project its own concerns. He wants us to be forced outside our boundaries, to reflect on how things are for other societies, to consider how life is for a 23-year-old (as Sigarev was when he wrote the play in 2000) who has known nothing other than a post-communist landscape ravaged by Aids and drug abuse, where it is not out of the ordinary for someone to disappear over five days on a Vodka-induced bender. (When the Guardian newspaper flew to Russia to interview Sigarev in 2003, he turned up over a day late, tapping the side of this throat with the nail of his index finger, a Russian gesture that means “vodka-related”.)
Kiernan is keeping the characters’ Russian names, pressing the Irish cast’s sometimes strongly defined accents into neutral territory and taking only minor liberties with the English translation written by Sasha Dugdale for the Royal Court Theatre in 2002 – reworking, for example, Dugdale’s more British terms of abuse such as “git” and “bugger”.
Since that Royal Court production, for which Sigarev won the Charles Wintour award for most promising playwright, the dramatist has become something of a star within the British theatrical world. Reviews of Plasticine hailed him as “exciting”, “in yer face” and “grim and sensational”, although a dissenting Michael Billington in the Guardian wondered if the drama was “a direct response to social disintegration in Russia or to international fashions in playwriting”. In 2003 the Royal Court produced Black Milk, a play that offered “a nightmarish trip to the lower depths of contemporary Russia”. It was also well received, with reviewers calling it “a play from hell, of pity and terror” and “a play you are not likely to forget in a hurry”.
Sigarev lives in the Lower Tagil region of the Urals on the Western fringes of Siberia, and much of his life story, as told in press interviews, is harrowing: his brother, a heroin addict, was jailed for seven and-a-half years, a sentence that devastated his mother and pushed his father into alcoholism. His home town, Verkhnaya Salda, is ruined, despite the fact that in the early years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, locals were able to make up to $100 per day digging titanium at a discarded mine about 300km away. When that easy source of cash dried up, the town was cut adrift.
Sigarev is evidently writing out of personal experience, which is one of the reasons Pat Kiernan was attracted to the play. It is also a big, ambitious piece of theatre, with thirty-three scenes and a large cast, the type of work that Kiernan says “feels natural” to him. It perhaps slots more authentically into a Corcadorca back catalogue that includes large-scale promenade productions such as The Merchant of Venice and Woycezk than last year’s smaller MedEia did, with only three cast members and a single location.
The transition to more familiar ground wasn’t necessarily a conscious one, says Kiernan; he was just doing what excited him. The play, with its sixteen year-old protagonist, also happens to make organic sense in relation to the wider Cork Midsummer Festival programme, which has at its heart FML (Fuck My Life), a visceral piece of work about the experience of being a teenager today. FML, like Plasticine, warns audiences in advance of “explicit content”. Within this context, is Kiernan concerned that he may be accused of being out to shock?
“No,” he says evenly, “because we’re not.” But he won’t mind if his audience comes away stimulated or surprised. “I think theatre - when it’s good - should be an immediate experience. I find I’m increasingly comfortable going into the theatre: I’m not being surprised by the beauty of something, or by the manner in which a story is being told. There are shows I have seen that have moved me in the gut or filled me with wonder. You can limit yourself in terms of asking is everything right instead of instinctual.
“So it wouldn’t be the case that we are out to shock, but it’s no harm either. I’m not interested in shows that have you leave the same as you go in. What has changed after something like that? Then it’s about the drinks after and the dinner before.”
Rachel Andrews is a journalist and critic based in Cork.
Plasticine runs at The Savoy, Cork from June 14-26, with previews from June 11. For the full festival programme see www.corkmidsummer. com