Shukshin’s Stories is a dramatization of eight short stories by Soviet-era writer Vasily Shukshin (1929-74). If you know little or nothing about him or Moscow’s Theatre of Nations which presented it, you would not—at least among English-speakers—be alone and would have, at least until last night, had me as company. Ignorance may not be bliss, but it can sometimes lead to it.
An exemplary, bravura performance.
If the dramatizations are anything to go by, the source material—Shukshin’s short stories themselves, which take place in a single village in the Altai region of Siberia—must be models of the form.
Each story is, first and foremost, a slice of life vignette, compact in time and place yet stinting on neither description nor characterization. Despite being written in the then Soviet Union, there are no model workers or socialist exhortations; on the contrary, the characters love, drink, deceive and some put on some pretty (and petty) bourgeois airs. There are some commonalities: love, incompatibility and infidelity; the return of a prodigal son; money; the interaction between society and the individual. In one, a man spends most of his money on a pair of boots for his wife; another man spends the family savings on a microscope. One is a simple boy-meets-girl love story; another features a man who chops his own fingers rather than his own adulterous wife. One returning son has made it as a wrestler, another is a PhD, and a third is an escaped prisoner.
Structurally, the dilemma in each arises naturally and inevitably out of the interplay of situation and character. Most, but not all, employ a plot twist. Some are humorous, some are touching, some just are. While realistic, Shukshin seems more in the line of Gogol than Turgenev: many of the stories have an underpinning of satire, sometimes gentle, sometimes harsh.
The dramatization dodges two bullets which might have sunk the conversion from page to stage. The short stories are unconnected and thus risk becoming mere quarter-hour shorts. But the pieces steadily ramp up the drama and complexity: they start simple and sweet, a layer of satire is added in the third, and the first ends in quiet melancholy. The humor in the second half is tinged with menace and the finale is fatalistic and achingly sad.
The second narrow escape is in the extensive use of narration—taken, one imagines, directly from the stories themselves. Although this violates the standard dictate of “show, don’t tell”, the narration has been brilliantly placed in the voices of other characters, either singly or sometimes in the form of a cacophonous chorus.
It can be hard to know how much is text and how much directing, but the short works had remarkable pacing with just enough manic energy and slow reflection to be riveting.
The exemplary source material was matched by stellar acting by an ensemble of eight evidently extremely-talented professionals who navigated the eight plays, most if not all with eight characters, all entirely different. Two, Evgeny Mironov and Chulpan Khamatova, are—I was told—stars in Russia; it is easy to believe. But the production was characterized by excellent ensemble work rather than standout performances; or rather, all performances were of such a quality that it would be hard to choose between them.
Furthermore, several pieces involved singing, sometimes as haunting musical accompaniment; others had choreography which required perfect timing. No one missed a beat. This ambitious combination of textual adaptation, multi-faceting acting, timing (comic and otherwise), music and occasional acrobatics came off as entirely natural.
The surtitles were both fluent and technically proficient, although the rapid-fire pace of some of the dialogues required a certain amount of visual gymnastics. My limited Russian sufficed to know that they did not, and could not, quite capture all the nuance of the original, but the English text was natural, compact and remarkably in step. Staging was simple: a wooden floor, a long bench, and removable photographic backdrops of the village and its inhabitants today.
This bravura performance surely bears comparison with that of any English-speaking company Hong Kong audiences are likely to see either live or, nowadays, in cinema broadcast.