Playwright Martin McDonagh, winner of the 2015 Olivier best new play award for Hangmen, is being honoured with his own theatre festival, in which his plays will be performed non-stop for a week. But fans of his writing will have to hop on a plane to the Urals city of Perm to catch the event.
The 'McDonagh Festival' in October is being staged for the second year running by an ambitious small theatre which has specialised in staging McDonagh's plays and will stage the first production of Hangmen in Russia next month.
How do I know this? Out of the blue, I received an email from the Teatr U Mosta (Theatre by the Bridge) in Perm announcing their festival and asking me to spread the word. So as a longtime admirer of Russian theatre and of McDonagh's plays, I think this news deserves a wider audience. Not many living playwrights get a whole festival devoted to their works anywhere, let alone in provincial Russia. McDonagh surely deserves it.
Perm may be remote, but it has long cherished its reputation as a Russian city that culturally punches above its weight, ever since the Mariinsky Ballet and other leading artistic companies were evacuated there during World War Two. Teatr U Mosta, like most Russian theatres, relies on the traditional repertory system with a permanent company of actors. It has three small stages and a few hundred seats, but a look at its extensive website shows that this is no impoverished fringe theatre counting its kopecks at the end of the month. It gets support from the Perm regional government, the city of Perm and from deep-pocketed sponsors led by the oil company Lukoil. A virtual tour of the building on its website displays a lavishly decorated foyer with chandeliers, swagged curtains and antique-style sofas covered in velours -- the sort of place a local oligarch might choose for a champagne-fuelled night out with his moll.
The theatre is the creation of one man, hailed on the website as 'The Master'. Sergei Pavlovich Fedotov founded it back in the 1980s and is still the artistic director, responsible for all its productions. The repertoire includes not just plays by Gogol, Chekhov, Ostrovsky, Gorky, Bulgakov and lesser-known Russian classics, but also eight plays by Martin McDonagh, including the award-winning Hangmen ('Palachi' in Russian) which opened this summer. The theatre has toured McDonagh's plays extensively across Russia and in eastern Europe and the Balkans, winning lots of awards.
The McDonagh festival is competitive, with prizes awarded by a jury. It includes the Glasgow Tron theatre's new production of The Lonesome West, with other companies coming from Northern Ireland, Russia, Poland, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, the Czech Republic and Iran.
McDonagh's strain of black comedy clearly resonates in what might be called the Lonesome East. What I like about his early plays set in the remote provinces of Ireland is the combination of human sympathy and a certain cold detachment; the playwright is a London-born Irishman, not a native, and he seems to be taking a quizzical look at the mythic way the Irish view themselves. In his later plays, such as The Pillowman, it's easy to see how the themes of violence of repression easily find an echo with Russian and East European audiences.
But I'd still be interested to know exactly why Fedotov, who proclaims his belief in the 'mystical' power of theatre and cites Grotowski, Artaud and Mikhail Chekhov as his influences, finds in McDonagh something that contemporary Russian playwrights don't have. My guess is that McDonagh's sense of the absurd has a lot in common with that of Gogol.