To Play is to Be
British playwright and director Martin Cooke has been in Moscow since 2006, and through his inimitable brand of to-thepoint, British and soulful (not an oxymoron) theatre, is becoming known on the Arts scene here. One of his goals, he says, is to help Russians enjoy English theatre. He has a difficult job on his hands, as Russia is the home of world-class theatre. But for Martin, this is precisely the point.
Martin Cooke interviewed by John Harrison
Photos courtesy of Zhennia and Dima at the City University
Together with a small band of dedicated collaborators, both foreign and Russian, such as Elena Morozova and Titus Adam, Martin Cooke creates legitimate theatre, in pubs, universities and embassies. His repertoire is extensive and selective. From Harold Pinter (‘A Slight Ache’), to Eduardo de Filippo (‘The Inheritor’), and Strindberg (‘Eric the 14th’) as well as his own works, ‘The Princess Who Knew Everything’ and ‘Pop Pop I kill Them’.
Missions aside, Martin Cooke succeeds in showing a genre of theatre to the Russian public which they would probably have little chance of seeing otherwise.
Passport recently caught up with Martin for some inside information:
What gave you the idea of coming to work in theatre in Russia?
My English theatre company ‘Rough as Guts’, under the direction of Deborah Bruce, toured a three-person version of ‘The Tempest’ round Poland in 1993. We took a brilliant, twisted play called ‘The Card Index’, back to England where it premiered. The play was written by Tadeusz Rosewicz, aka the Polish Samuel Beckett. Rosewicz himself, on his seventieth birthday came to the premiere and congratulated me, in floods of tears, with the most complimentary words I’d ever heard, saying ‘he hadn’t recognised his own play.’
When I worked as stand-in dramaturge at the theatr Clwyd under artistic director Helena Kaut-Howson, I came into further contact with Eastern European drama. It was through Helena that Sir Anthony Hopkins and Julie Christie came to theatr Clwyd, Hopkins to do his version of ‘Uncle Vanya’, called ‘August’, Christie to play Pinter.
I was inspired by Eastern European drama. I preferred it’s defamiliarised otherness. Hopkins’s Vanya had suggested to me that the one thing missing from the ‘avante garde’ was a substantial ‘classical’ dimension. I assumed that the best place to find that classical dimension would be in Russia, where it would have been preserved, without any murky intervention from moneygrabbing promoters of Laodicean twaddle, determined to replace dramatic art with computer games and soap operas.
In 2006 I came to Russia, firmly half-believing that I would find a theatre unsullied by commerce and politics, that the actors would be universally brilliant, dedicated and sober; that the interest in English texts would be bigger than the interest in the Beatles and levis and that I would become the most famous English theatre director in Russia.
How do you manage to produce so many different plays with limited resources and no finances?
Just keep going. Peter Brook says a Director directs. I am fortunate in that I have experience as an actor, in which case I can direct myself if need be. For example with my one-man “Charles and Diana in Drag” show, I played at proekt fabrika, Dom Bulgakov, the Actors Gallery, and in a tantric sex club. As a result, I went on to direct a Beckett piece called ‘Catastrophe’; then to commission a masterly translation of Pinter’s ‘The Dumb Waiter’ by Alexander Yarin, which was given a rehearsed reading (one character speaking English one character speaking Russian) at a swingers club in Belorusskaya.
Chekov says that all drama is three people sitting around a table drinking tea. Theatre happens in the space created by the confluent imaginations of the living and the dead.
Good work generates growth and is rewarded with flowers. It is natural to suppose that this ‘predictable mystery’ will continue. Goethe says something like: ‘Begin, and the universe will send mighty forces to come to your aid.’ Where’s the limit?
I have come to Russia to realise something. An unknown play, which we can all discover, (‘The Inheritor’) or a wellknown play, which is rare here and which we can see again in a fresh light (‘Slight Ache’). Money is vital but the play’s the thing. There’s no such thing as free sponsorship, as we imagine the Greeks practised, yet we are looking for sponsors to cover the costs of flights and so on. But my soul has so often been ravaged by sycophancy when bending my vision to the whim of an autocrat’s cheque book, that I can’t be obsequious anymore. If people can see for themselves how our friendship with them, or their company might be mutually beneficial, then I’ll be delirious.
In London, pub theatre is real theatre, not theatre designed for inebriates. It’s easy to misunderstand this aspect of our project. We have a humour night providing light entertainment – but this is not our raison d’être. Pubs can be the happy solution to our empty space problem – but we insist on artistic autonomy.
Who comes to your performances? Who do you prefer?
Everyone is welcome. We are serious and sincere and what we present is rare and authentic, we’re not copying anyone, we are literally peerless, we’re doing something unique. I’ll say Russians are preferable since if ‘fame is the quintessence of misunderstanding surrounding a new face’ then it’s nice to be misunderstood so often, by so many.
Plus, I don’t suffer outright abuse and cynicism here as much as in England. Also the Russian theatre goers I meet never miss a beat on the emotional truth. ‘Foreign’ audiences perhaps see things more clearly as they are not encumbered with conditioned expectations of what ought to be.
What’s it like working with Russian actors?
It’s an eternal joy of unmitigated derangement.
Elena Morozova, Titus Adam and Chris Karle in Harold Pinter’s ‘A Slight Ache’,
shown for the first time in Russia at the City University of Moscow, directed by Martin Cooke
What do you think is wrong with Russian theatre today?
I have huge respect for the tradition which created Elena Morozova, she is one of the best actresses I’ve ever seen in human form. She is probably on a par with Ellen Terry. What is wrong with a theatre tradition which creates such a great talent as hers? Who am I to say critical things against people who make a living in the theatre, even if they do it by juggling cats? God bless us all. We may be actors’ batmen but we’re human beings too.
I want to be an artist of the drama theatre said the young man to his master.
Yes, inquired the young man - then what?
By then you will have gotten used to it, replied the master.
Planned performances in March
March 7th Auditions for HARLEQUINADE: venue to be announced.
March 11th “Shakesperience” Pavel Ruminov’s naked cinema film preview, starring Martin Cooke.
March 14th: Strindberg evening. Pivo Vodi Pub Theatre, 26/1 Sretenka Ulitsa, metro Sukharevskaya
March 21st 2nd showing of Shakesperience - Pivo Vodi Pub Theatre 7.00PM
March 28th ANGLO-AMERICAN humour night. Pivo Vodi Pub Theatre 7.00PM