After being stuck in Russia, Kirill Serebrennikov directs a play in Germany

HAMBURG, Germany — At first glance, a recent rehearsal at the Thalia Theater here looked a lot like any other. On stage, the actors wal...

HAMBURG, Germany — At first glance, a recent rehearsal at the Thalia Theater here looked a lot like any other. On stage, the actors walked through the final scene of a play titled “The black monk“, trying to get the right bitrate.

“Stop, stop, stop,” shouted the director, Kirill Serebrennikov, from the middle of the auditorium. He was unhappy with the projections airing on moons suspended above the performers and began to troubleshoot.

It was business as usual at the theater, but for Serebrennikov – one of Russia’s most prominent directors, whose stage work is produced across Europe – the chance to oversee the production in person was an unexpected surprise. It was the first time in over four years that he had been able to set foot outside his home country.

Serebrennikov’s provocative stage work, which often deals with subjects considered taboo in Russia, such as homosexuality, has been seen as critical of life under President Vladimir V. Putin. Perhaps too critical, since for four and a half years Serebrennikov has been implicated in a case of financial fraud which is widely seen by the Russian intelligentsia as part of a crackdown on artistic freedom.

Starting in August 2017, Serebrennikov spent nearly 20 months under house arrest in Moscow, and was later sentenced of embezzling about 133 million rubles, or about $2 million, of public funds allocated to a festival held at the Gogol Center, the avant-garde theater that Serebrennikov directed. The high-profile court case resulted in a suspended sentence for the director in June 2020, but also a three-year travel ban outside of Russia.

Thus, when the director arrived at Hamburg airport on January 8, Joachim Lux, the artistic director of the Thalia, greeted him with astonishment.

In a statement released by his theatre, Lux seemed relieved, noting that his performance hall had overcome “all pandemic and political obstacles” to bring the director to Hamburg. He called the director’s safe arrival “a great miracle that gives strength in difficult times!”

Among the most surprised was Serebrennikov himself.

The director explained that his request to leave Russia in order to be able to make a production based on a little-known story by Anton Chekhov was approved unexpectedly and at very short notice.

“Please allow me to go to work in Hamburg,” the manager had asked Russian officials, he said at a recent press conference in the foyer of the Thalia. It was the same standard request that authorities had denied many times before. However, earlier this month “they just gave permission for this project,” Serebrennikov said, adding that permission to travel was granted at the very last minute.

“They just signed the paper right after the New Years holidays,” said the 52-year-old director, dressed in all black and sporting lightly tinted sunglasses and a baseball cap. “I was probably a good guy, my behavior was good and that’s why they said OK,” he added.

In an interview after the press conference, Serebrennikov said he gave up trying to figure out exactly why he was released from Russia to direct “The Black Monk.”

“I’m here. I’m in Hamburg,” he said with a shrug. “We create theater with a lot of very talented people in one of the best theaters in the world.”

When he couldn’t leave Russia, Serebrennikov found ingenious ways to continue his work abroad. In November 2018, while still under house arrest and banned from using the internet, he led a production of Mozart’s “Così Fan Tutte” at the Zurich Opera using a relay system for video files involving a USB drive hand-delivered by his lawyer in Moscow.

Similar technological workarounds have allowed it to remain highly prolific in captivity of one type or another. From Zurich’s ‘Così’ he also had artistic control of stage productions in Germany and Austria and made two well-received films, ‘Leto’ in 2018 and ‘Petrov’s Flu’ in 2021, both presented in premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. Film Festival, in the absence of the director.

In much of Serebrennikov’s recent stage work, confinement has emerged as a central theme, including in his production of “Out», which performed in Avignon and Berlin, and its staging in 2021 of “Parsifal” by Richard Wagner at the Vienna State Opera, which partly took place in a prison. His production of “The Nose” by Dmitri Shostakovich, which opened the current season at the Bavarian State Opera, featured scenes of state violence and repression in a dystopian but eerily contemporary Russia.

Serebrennikov speculated that being forced to practice his craft remotely during the months he spent under house arrest gave him an advantage once the pandemic began. “It was my personal rehearsal for Corona,” he said with a wry laugh.

Since the beginning of his legal troubles in 2017, Serebrennikov has become an emblem of artistic freedom in the face of government repression. But the director said he was uncomfortable with this role. “I’m a draft animal,” he says. “I don’t want to be a symbol.”

Even by the director’s standards, “The Black Monk” is a difficult production. It features a large cast of Russian, German, American, Armenian and Latvian actors, dancers and singers, dialogue in three languages ​​and incorporates music by Latvian composer Jekabs Nimanis.

“We don’t have too much time,” Serebrennikov said of the two weeks he has in Hamburg to complete production. And while he seemed happy to be back to directing “in person”, he said working remotely was an artistically viable alternative.

“We’re getting used to having a lot of digital life around us,” he said. “Of course personal presence is much more preferable for me, but Zoom is OK,” he added.

After “The Black Monk”, Serebrennikov has several other international productions on the horizon, including an opera this summer Holland Party in Amsterdam, and a possible visit of “The Black Monk”. It is unclear whether he will be cleared to travel for either.

“It could happen, but nobody knows,” he said. “I prefer to be in the moment and not expect too much,” he added, alluding to his own legal situation and the beatings of the whole world by the pandemic.

According to the conditions of his travel permit, Serebrennikov must return to Russia on January 22, the day after “The Black Monk” opens. The director said he has every intention of returning to Moscow, where he will begin work on a film which will be his first in English.

“I’m a reliable person,” he said, adding that “the people who allowed me to leave are probably also at risk.”

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Newsrust - US Top News: After being stuck in Russia, Kirill Serebrennikov directs a play in Germany
After being stuck in Russia, Kirill Serebrennikov directs a play in Germany
Newsrust - US Top News
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