mercredi 15 avril 2009

©Birgit Kuch, Marjanishvili in Tbilisi

By Birgit KUCH, University of Leipzig in Tbilisi/Leipzig,
Article published in on March 21, 2009

Georgian society has undergone rapid changes and continuous transformation in recent years, and determining attitudes towards the Soviet past remains a complex and difficult issue. Which historical moments should be remembered and which ones are better to be forgotten is still a matter of ongoing discussion. A look at the changes and continuities experienced by the Marjanishvili State Academic Drama Theatre in Tbilisi provides a vivid example of how these questions concerning collective identities, memories and representations are being discussed in Georgia today.

A new generation at the Marjanishvili Theatre

The Marjanishvili, which celebrated its 80 years of existence last November, is exemplary of the generational changes and both the aesthetic, thematic and political trends that have been observed in Tbilisi’s theatres and in other institutions since the Rose Revolution. After three years of renovation, the theatre, its picture frame stage and 480 seats, reopened in September 2006 with a new artistic director, Levan Tsuladze. A graduate from the Shota Rustaveli Theatre and Film Institute of Tbilisi, Tsuladze’s roots are in Tbilisi’s free theatre scene. With his nomination to the post, a representative of the younger generation of stage directors became artistic director of the Marjanishvili.

In 1997, Tsuladze co-founded the Sardapi ‘Basement’ Theatre, where he staged a large number of productions, mainly comedies and vaudevilles. With his entertaining works he secured the lasting interest of a predominantly young public, transforming the Sardapi into one of the most popular theatres in town. In 2003, the theatre’s success led to the opening of a second Sardapi branch in the Vake district.

Today, Tsuladze successfully applies the same strategy of creating attractive spectacles for a young audience, only this time for the Marjanishvili. He has worked for the theatre in the past and in December 2005 he received a medal of honour from President Saakashvili for his accomplishments as a director. At the ceremony Saakashvili gave awards to other honourees who were either too young to have Soviet pasts or who had never been associated with the old elite. At the same time, the President used strong words to verbally attack the so-called “red intelligentsia”. (1) The event is an example of post-revolutionary Georgia’s continuation of traditional Soviet practices albeit with strong anti-Soviet rhetoric.

Since reopening in 2006 the Marjanishvili’s repertoire has been characterized by a remarkable heterogeneity. The theatre hosts not only premieres and new performances, but also productions that were performed before the renovation.

Both Georgian and foreign plays in translation have been performed in recent years under the leadership of a variety of directors, including Tsuladze. Three popular productions from three directors of different generational backgrounds give a clear idea of the negotiations taking place on the Marjanishvili’s stage.

“Art”: A Western play performed in Georgia

The first of these productions is Temur Chkheidze’s “Art”. Chkheidze graduated from the Rustaveli Theatre and Film Institute as a director in 1965. During the 1980s, like Tsuladze today, he was artistic director of the Marjanishvili. Although during the 1990s he worked full time at the BDT in St. Petersburg, he regularly returned to the Marjanishvili and other theatres in Tbilisi to direct productions such as “Art”, which premiered in October 1999.

Three middle-aged friends get into a quarrel about a painting that one of them bought. The entirely white canvas of the piece initially raises questions on sense and meaning, but step by step the discussion also threatens to challenge their friendship. In his Georgian adaptation of the internationally acclaimed play by contemporary French writer Yasmina Reza, Chkheidze worked closely with the text, focusing on simplicity. The set is minimalist: there is a carpet that functions as the stage, several chairs and of course, the white painting. The production’s main characteristic is the expressive and occasionally comical acting which involves quick verbal exchanges that sometimes break the “fourth wall” by directing the discussion towards the spectators.

Strikingly, this adaptation for the Georgian stage exceeded the literal interpretation of the play. By giving explicitly Georgian names to the characters and even to the unseen, but oft-mentioned painter, the plot was naturalized. On the one hand, in staging the international hit at Marjanishvili, the theatre and the audience delve into Western culture. This appears to be true as well for the content of the play, which resumes long-lasting discussions on the uses and significations of abstract art. In order to make the plot truly socially relevant for the local audience, however, it seems to have been necessary to transplant the plot to a clearly Georgian setting.

“Kakutsa Cholokhashvili”: A Georgian National Epic

“Kakutsa Cholokhashvili” was directed by Levan Tsuladze and first performed in May 2007. The play about resistance hero Cholokhashvili who fought against the Bolsheviks in the 1920s was written by Guram Kartvelishvili, who also received a medal of honour from President Saakashvili in 2005. Georgia’s Ministry of Defence was one of the theatre’s main partners, donating 15 guns, which were used to great effect during the performance.

Comments by the director himself indicated that the production fits into the context of the intellectual militaristic mobilization that came along with Georgia’s increased military spending long before the outbreak of 2008’s August War. “I hope that the performance will be interesting and important,” Tsuladze told the English language newspaper Georgia Today in March 2007. “It will be a heroic saga that will serve the military aspirations in Georgia that benefit our country,” he continued.

It is pleasant for me to work on this performance. It does not mean that the theatre will turn into the heroic one but I do believe that this genre is necessary for the Georgian population today. Kakutsa Cholokashvili is my ideal. He was a real hero. I want to restore the popularity of the profession of officer in Georgia, as I believe there can be no better job for a man. (2)

Consequently, Cholokhashvili’s central character embodies a heroic, rather non-scientific image of the past, which has many features of a patriotic historical master narrative. Although there are some female characters on stage, it’s a man’s world that Tsuladze presents: in addition to depictions of the life, deeds and death of the hero, there are several battle scenes, accompanied by pathos and bawdy humour.

While the producers brought the glorious military performance of the hero, defeated at last, into focus before the August War, a slight, but important shift in meaning has taken place since. Today, the production seems to be a reminder of the Red Army’s 1921 invasion which resulted in Georgia‘s integration into the Soviet Union. Following the recent war with Russia, the portrayal of the 1921 invasion also now evokes the events of August 2008. In the context of this war, the ideal of heroic resistance against the intruder acquires a new significance, even if this resistance resulted in defeat. Therefore, the historical character of Cholokhashvili, who had not been officially remembered for decades, could turn into a symbol of 2008’s “fight against imperialism”.

“Uriel Acosta”: A Kind of Nostalgic Museum

While “Kakutsa Cholokhashvili” is in line with today’s official readings of the past that promote memories of an oppressive occupation by the Soviet empire, another production at the Marjanishvili, “Uriel Acosta”, functions as a vehicle through which nostalgic memories of Soviet times seem to be possible. “Uriel Acosta” was directed by the theatre’s founder Kote Marjanishvili in 1929, and brought back in 2006 by the late actress Sophiko Chiaureli. In the intervening years, the play had been revived several times by Veriko Anjaparidze, Chiaureli’s mother, who first played the lead role, before passing it on to her daughter. She took care to maintain the Marjanishvili production as authentically as possible, and Chiaureli strove to do the same in 2006. As a result, a piece of early Soviet Avant-garde theatre has survived for decades in Tbilisi

The play by 19th century German writer Karl Gutskow is situated in Amsterdam’s 17th century Jewish community. The main character, Uriel Acosta, is revolting against the backwardness and narrow-mindedness of his surroundings that have prevented him from marrying his beloved Judith. After Judith is forced to marry another man and Uriel is expelled by the others, the couple commits suicide.

While staging ”Uriel Acosta”, Marjanishvili clearly emphasised the play’s revolutionary message. Armed with his experiences from Russia’s Theatrical October, he returned to Georgia after the Bolshevik annexation, and continued to create revolutionary theatre, laying the groundwork for modern theatre in his home country at the same time. However, the production’s historical and political background and its links to the Avant-garde movement do not appear to be the main concern today. For the time being, memories of the bygone stars, who had been involved in the original production, and the good old times they represent, appear to be in the foreground.

As a result, there is little room for interpretation for actor couple Nato Murvanidze and Nika Tavadze (who also embodies Cholokhashvili), who play the leading roles in the contemporary version of “Uriel Acosta”. Their task instead is to incarnate their forbears. It is this system of dynastic transmission of tradition that gives the Marjanishvili theatre its character of a self-referential realm, a storehouse of collective memory. Other ever-lasting attributes of the Marjanishvili were and are its specific topicality, its being in line with the spirit of the times, as much as its closeness to the respective holders of power.

These three exemplary productions presented at the Marjanishvili indicate that there are many competing images and narrations attempting to answer questions about Georgia’s collective identity issues. This plurality of representations is also true for Tbilisi’s theatre landscape in general, where the Marjanishvili holds its important and particular position for already 80 years.

(1)See: 31 December 2005, President Saakashvili awards public figures with orders and medals of honor, (20.11.08)
(2)Maka Lomadze: The Catcher in the Rye and Georgian History: Innovations and Plans at Marjanishvili Theatre, in: Georgia Today, 30.03.2007, electronic version: (16.02.08)

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