Play about silenced 1920s gay poet rivets Moscow theatre audiences

Play tells story of poet Mikhail Kuzmin who disappeared into official obscurity during Soviet era

A play about a largely forgotten gay poet from early 1900s Russia has emerged as the dark horse in this year’s Golden Mask awards, the Oscars of the Russian theatre world.

The Trout Breaks the Ice is based on the story of Mikhail Kuzmin, who disappeared into the official obscurity imposed by the Soviets on artists considered deviant or who were out of favour. The play’s success comes amid fears that the relative freedom enjoyed by Russian theatre is under threat.

Kuzmin was celebrated in his day for his poems on love and loss but from 1929 until the end of the Soviet Union his work was not published.

“Seeing him at that particular crazy time in history – as a gay man in St Petersburg in the changeover from tsarist Russia to Bolshevik Soviet Russia – lay out this thesis for why his love is worth something … As a gay man myself, that was an amazing thing to read from the 1920s,” said Odin Biron, an American actor who has lived in Russia since 2005 and plays the young Kuzmin on stage.

Trout, part of a cycle of five plays focusing on Silver Age poets including Boris Pasternak, was one of the last works to premiere at Moscow’s progressive Gogol Centre before , the virtuoso director who helped transform the theatre from a backwater into a hotbed for experimentation and activism.

The Russian film and television industries are rigid and conservative, particularly when it comes to themes that make the Kremlin uncomfortable, such as two men kissing on camera, but Russian theatre has far greater creative freedom. Some of the most cutting-edge discussion and criticism on social topics and the country’s growing conservatism take place in urban theatres after the lights dim.

Serebrennikov’s arrest this year on embezzlement charges, which his supporters say are political in nature, have raised concerns that this freedom is in danger.

“It’s terrible for the company. For me, it’s also terrible about what’s happening to a friend,” said Vladislav Nastavshev, the director of Trout, in a telephone interview from his native Riga.

The tradition of freedom in theatre goes back to the Soviet Union. “Maybe it is because they view us as jokers,” said Nastavshev. “But we are not saying anything that is forbidden. And that’s the whole point of Gogol Centre.”

Ilya Romashko, who plays an older Kuzmin remembering his youth, said he believed Trout was not meant as a direct commentary on modern Russia. “It is really about pure emotions and a heart that loves and wants to be loved. I think that we managed to jump over that simple question, what it means to be gay in Russia, which is good. Although at the very beginning there were concerns of how it would be received.”

Kuzmin came of age in fin-de-siècle St Petersburg, abandoning a musical education at the St Petersburg conservatory and gaining fame mainly as a writer. His 1906 novel Wings became a sensation for its frank exploration of a gay relationship, and his 1907 poetic cycle Alexandrian Songs established his reputation among the generation’s greatest poets.

Nastavshev first discovered Kuzmin in 1999 while looking through a guidebook of gay life in St Petersburg and began composing music to Kuzmin’s early poetry. Years later, Serebrennikov approached Nastavshev to write a script for a play about Kuzmin.

Nastavshev said he feared the play would turn into a simple biography so he chose The Trout Breaks the Ice, Kuzmin’s final poetic cycle, as “a finale to everything he had written before”.

The poem, which is recounted through a series of vignette flashbacks, explores romantic longing, some in simple relations with the narrator’s former lovers, others after the appearance of a woman between them. Romashko, in a mask, narrates as Biron moves about the stage.

The overarching metaphor is one of a trout seeking to break through the ice with its tail, a representation of struggle. “And now I believe / that a trout can break through the ice / if it is persistent. That is all,” the poem ends.

For the actors, much of their experience of Kuzmin comes through their director, Nastavshev. “For me it’s two people who resemble each other in their heart, in the fact that they have no skin to cover themselves, and are both very exposed and sensitive,” said Romashko.

Trout is nominated for best play and Nastavshev for best director in the Golden Mask awards, set to be awarded on Sunday. Romashko and Biron are also nominated for their performances.

by Andrew Roth in Moscow
Source – The Guardian