Tom Stoppard’s play Leopoldstadt gets a Russian premiere

Yulia Savikovskaya meets Alexey Borodin, the director of the production and the Art Director of Russian Academic Youth Theatre, Moscow. 

On June 16, 2023 Russian Academic Youth Theatre (RAMT), Moscow will have a unique premiere that will open a new page in its history. The audiences will see the first Russian production of Tom Stoppard’s latest play Leopoldstadt that had opened in London on 25 January 2020, then had a break for covid pandemic closures, and later ran in the West End up through 2022. The play shows a Jewish family in Vienna at different periods in European history, from the eve of 1900 to 1955. Translation of the play into Russian has been done by Arkady Ostrovsky, a long-term collaborator of RAMT and Stoppard, in whose translations other Stoppard’s plays have also appeared on this state – The Coast of Utopia, Rock’n’Roll and The Hard Problem (the latter is still in the repertoire). Stoppard has expressed his agreement for this production and has stated that he appreciates working with RAMT and its Art Director Alexey Borodin and treasures the fact that his latest play could be staged in this theatre.

Yulia Savikovskaya meets Alexey Borodin who directs this production to talk about the upcoming premiere.

Alexey Borodin, the director of the production and the Art Director of Russian Academic Youth Theatre, Moscow

Alexey Vladimirovich, do you remember how you first discovered Stoppard and started working on his plays?

You know, Stoppard has always seemed beyond reach to me. He has these terrific plays that I had read before working on his texts – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Arcadia, etc. I didn’t feel that I could have anything to do with them as a director. And then Arkady Ostrovsky, whom I knew well, told me he could give me two translated parts of Stoppard’s trilogy The Coast of Utopia. He told me that he had shown it to the Bolshoi Dramatic Theatre, then to the Moscow Art Theatre, and in both cases got refusals. And then he decided that the right thing to do should have been to come to RAMT. What struck me when I read the pieces was not so much the content, although it is complicated and interesting. I was impressed by the form of this play – how it is written, how it is structured, its whole composition. The first act is what happens in Pryamukhino, the Bakunins’ estate; the second act begins at the same time in Moscow and we see the events developing somewhere else at the same time. A young woman goes out of one door, goes into another – and she is already pregnant – and then through the third one and she has already given birth, she has her child with her. It is showing people in space and time at the same time. And it is all combined dramatically so amazingly in his plays. And then – in parallel with that feeling – it was the content that started to open to me. That is how it began. And I had to dare to take these three big plays into production at the same time. I realized I absolutely had to do it. We started working. And Tom, when I told Arkady that I had made up my mind, called straight away and told me that when he was writing The Coast of Utopia he thought it would be good if it was staged in Russia one day. He didn’t know our theatre, and when he first came here he saw all the plays we had in the repertoire. And so gradually he started coming to rehearsals, for two or three days sometimes, and just sat in on the rehearsals, as he loves the process very much. And then we talked to him a few times after rehearsals, and the artists asked him something. It turned out that we were very close on some important issues, and later our friendship developed.

Alexey Borodin with tom Stoppard, 2007

How, from your point of view, does the style and approach of RAMT to Stoppard differ from other theatres where his plays have also been performed?

It is difficult for me to analyse it because all our productions of Stoppard – and we have had three so far – The Coast of Utopia, Rock’n’Roll and The Real Problem – happened naturally. There was such an organic relationship, it’s amazing. The Coast of Utopia was liked by the audience, the critics, and Stoppard himself, and for us it became something very significant. The understanding of him as a person and as a playwright is natural for the theatre and its artists. There was no desire to be better than others, it was just the way our actors responded to his texts. During The Coast of Utopia my long-term dream came true, as during rehearsals there was a feeling that the Green Room in the theatre was a university canteen. The actors would ask each other – have you read Annenkov, Herzen, etc.? And when you suddenly get this kind of intellectual atmosphere, it’s a great joy, as it happens with artists for whom the emotional component is paramount. And in this case, Stoppard’s incredible knowledge of theatre revealed in how he makes his plays, how he understands his actors helps to understand the thoughts and ideas in the scenes. So it was a natural process, I can’t look at it from the outside. And so when he sent the theatre a copy of his latest play Leopoldstadt in English and I had read it, as far as my English allowed, I understood that Stoppard had written a new play, there was nothing else to consider here… The same thins with The Hard Problem: when he had written it, there was no deliberation about staging it or not. I feel that in him our theatre has found its playwright.

There might not be one answer to this question, but I’ll try to ask it for the sake of the discussion. Stoppard’s plays are what kind of plays? Philosophical, historical, political, educational, entertaining? To which genre and theme can we attribute them?

In my point of view, these plays are not so much to be read as for being staged. These plays, when you read them, you realise that they reveal high intellectual level, a colossal knowledge of the subject. In order to write The Coast of Utopia Stoppard had spent five years in the London Library studying everything written about that time, researching all the memoirs, biographies, first-hand materials. It was the same with The Hard Problem, as far as I know. Only when Stoppard knows his subject in and out, can he build his grandiose theatrical compositions. That is what sets him apart from others. It is hard to imagine that any playwright would take it so seriously, and spend so much time researching a play. He needs to know his subject, and then he  is free, that opens ways to his writing. Coming back to our discussion of the genre: when we started discussing and rehearsing The Coast of Utopia, after a while I realized that although there are Russian characters in it, it is an English play about Russian people. It doesn’t come to mind immediately, as you see Herzen, Belinsky, Turgenev there. Maybe I’m wrong and I haven’t said it before, but for me there is Bernard Shaw, there is Wilde, and then there is Stoppard. I have them lined up in such succession. Stoppard is a brilliant and unique playwright, but he continues the path of English drama in the trajectory I have described.



Rehearsal of the play Leopoldstadt. Photo by Maria Moiseeva

How can you make all the actors involved in the production of Stoppard’s play understand the historical perspective, the knowledge that Stoppard has accumulated, to stay on par with the intellectual complexity of his characters, and also to feel the complex dramaturgical composition of his works?

Let me give you an example. In The Coast of Utopia there’s a monologue by Alexander Herzen – he is addressing, as Stoppard writes, a blue blouse, that is, a worker. In our production we had an idea that he was addressing a man who was sitting in the street and playing a three-row French accordion. And before that I was in France – Deauville, Trouville – and I realised I had just passed something important. I came back and there was a man sitting there playing a French accordion, he had a mug for collections in front of him – I stood there and listened to him for half an hour. And I understood that it was very important for Herzen to speak to a man who did not understand what he was saying, and that there should be a kind of dialogue between them nevertheless, with accordion sounds substituting the answers. I then I told Tom Stoppard that this monologue was impossible to say on stage, it was a treatise of some sort. He said that in England an actor playing Herzen had told him roughly the same, and that he suggested the following: to read it twelve times in a row and then it will be fine. And that is just the way it is, it is a great technique. We were rehearsing lately with Yevgeny Redko, the artist who plays Hermann Merz in Leopoldstadt, and I remembered that. There is a difficult phrase there, and I remembered this technique. It is a way of understanding and appropriating Stoppard’s text – to read his lines several times. It is also important to see his «arches», as that is how he calls them, when what is said in the first act will echo, re-appear in another form in the third act. Finding these arches is fun, everyone gets involved in looking for them, it is like a puzzle to be solved. It is a remarkable skill – he creates a structure that is difficult to comprehend, but if you start to unweave it, it opens up to you, if you work hard on it. It becomes clear and unfolds without any problem. But you have to put in the effort.

Rehearsal of the play Leopoldstadt. Photo by Maria Moiseeva

What are you doing to explore the themes Leopoldstadt deals with? Are you currently researching the Holocaust, Jewish life in Europe in the first half of the 20th century, and all the atrocities the world faced in in the 1930-s-1940-s? What was the process of accumulating knowledge on this particular topic?

The accumulation of knowledge surely is absolutely essential. The actor Mikhail Chekhov had a formula: «I know what I am talking about». This is the main thing with Stoppard’s plays – you have to know and understand a lot. We already know a lot about Austria, about the position of the Jews there, about 1900-s, about 1924, about 1938, we know enough facts that move us. This knowledge is not as deep as Tom Stoppard’s, as it may load the actors’ heads and they will be under the pressure of this knowledge. You have to know something basic about these times. That is why I hesitated to give lectures, to invite experts on different topics including Jewish history and Austria, as then all we would do is listen to lectures. Of course, we all got into reading about some details and historic facts, but we tried to find emotional impressions in them. You have to find the knowledge that awakens your inner guesses, you have to work not just with your head, but with your heart, with your entire human nature.

What new complexities are there in Leopoldstadt that have not been present in Stoppard’s other plays that have been performed at the RAMT?

In Leopoldstadt there is an impression that it is a just biography of a family in different periods. But I find that these are not just scenes of the family life through history. We see a clash of times, of epochs, of opinions and positions. I try to explore theatrical nature in these scenes. The impression is that there are many scenes of people expressing different points of view and arguing,  it is not just a story, there is a certain construction is its statement. You can’t approach it in a linear fashion – here’s the first story, here’s the next one – then it doesn’t work. If you take it as a movement, as a author’s construction, as soon as you find their vision for yourself, then something becomes clear. As we remember, you have to read it twelve times in a row, and you’ll figure it out.

Is the dramaturgy principle in Leopoldstadt similar to some of Stoppard’s previous plays? Isn’t it again a complex intellectual construction expressed through the interaction of people in different historical periods?

Surely the principle is the same, but you can’t be fooled by its outward realism, its historical grounding, its detailed descriptions and remarks, you cannot just stage it as it is. As soon as you realise there is some kind of mystery inside each scene you immediately see everything in a new light. At one of the rehearsals for The Coast of Utopia, Tom said to one actor: «Why does he do act as it is written?». For instance, it is written that the man is worried, but the play also shows that this man’s character is being a leader in all situations. Now he is failing, but he still maintains his leadership. The text and the behaviour of the artist should be different. Tom said: «I’ve done my job, now let him do his». Stoppard writes with the expectation that the artist and director will do their job and not just illustrate the text. It is important to preview how it would be perceived on stage. I liked it when Tom was sitting in rehearsals and asked: «Does that phrase work in Russian or not?» The phrase should work as he intended. His craftsmanship is one of the greatest in profession. We are trying to convey that craftsmanship and his conception of Leopoldstadt as we see it, and we have to see the results yet.

What are you doing to make sure that the play Leopoldstadt is perceived and understood by people who don’t know anything about the subject or the story? How do you make it for them to be interested to walk away being impressed by the story?

Everyone in the audience is unlikely to know much about this topic, as there are many specific topics related to Jewish life – for example, the circumcision. Arkady Ostrovsky has said that even in London there were many people who were ignorant about these issues, and about the history of Europe, and that is normal. You cannot expect us to explaining anything, because the very energy of the whole play crosses out the word ‘lecture’. Stoppard behaves boldly and immerses his audience in all the complexity of the subject. The viewer has to deal with a stream of all sorts of names and events from history. Stoppard doesn’t make any allowance for the fact that someone has to explain something. In all his plays we know little about the topics being raised. But he is counting on something else, and he takes a different route. He takes a dramaturgical construction which should eventually lead the audience to get interested in the subject. And if there is interest, you can put a lot of emotional and intellectual effort into it. You can then learn something yourself, but the design is not to make people smarter or more historically educated. What is important is that they get into a situation where it is not just entertainment, the play’s material requires the viewer to work hard. Stoppard plunges people powerfully into the theme and demands attention to the text, but he does it through his masterful construction of the play.

How difficult is it to make the audience used to intellectual dramaturgy?

We had played The Coast of Utopia trilogy for ten years, and each time the audience had been very involved, very attentive, because the plays were masterfully done. Stoppard is a  playwright who knows how to do things to keep the attention and keep the viewer’s interest. Still, I hope it’s no accident that we have him as ‘our’ playwright and that he says he has found his theatre in RAMT. When I came here 40 years ago, I wanted the theatre to have its own audience, because initially there wasn’t one. My dream was to find our own audience. All the things I’ve tried to do here have had this aim in mind. Stoppard’s productions and other important intellectual productions here like Michael Frayn’s Democracy and Nurnberg that is my adaptation of a screenplay by Abby Mann have their own spectators while they require a lot of intellectual work. Academics, psychologists, and scientists of various fields come to see The Hard Problem, and they all say that professionally it is flawless and that the scientific themes have been dealt with in a precise manner. On the other hand, the spectators who know nothing about the themes watch it with great interest. It’s a provocation on the part of the author or the theatre, it’s a risk every time, but you have to take it. If you’ve not only mastered it intellectually but you’re passionate about it, you’re interested in it, then the flame of your emotional involvement is passed on to the audience. It is very important. The viewer would not be taken on just by cold reason. I know that if you put Stoppard on the billboards in America, there will be a full house and you won’t be able to get in to see the shows – that’s the level of his popularity in the West. The average viewer is interested in him and his plays. I think the reason is that this is not purely intellectual theatre, there is a knowledge of theatre as action and development, as his masterful theatricalisation of events. He, as I said, reads literature about his subjects just to get his own freedom as a playwright.

To what extent do you invite the actors during rehearsals to suggest ideas of their own? How much do they participate and get their word in your work as a director?

If I understand what I am doing as a director, I even provoke this initiative from the actors. According to Meyerhold, you have to know what you’re going to do for every minute of the rehearsal even before it starts. But Meyerhold then writes: «You have to come to a rehearsal and do everything the other way round». You have to have a plan, but a rehearsal is a living process, and I’m always open to suggestions. Sometimes I even leave some pieces or moments for the actors to decide, I give them full freedom. The technique of live theatre is associated with such improvisation, with suggestions, and I don’t understand the distinction between actors’ theatre and directors’ theatre, the so-called Regietheater. The rehearsal process also involves working with a set designer, and unfortunately Leopoldstadt was our last work with Stanislav Benediktov who has passed away recently. There were many set designs and drawings by him because he always drew a lot. The whole concept was there and then his great friend helped us to implement everything he had in mind. The happiness of collaborating with him was suddenly cut short, and Leopoldstadt will be the last work that has been made with him. It wasn’t just an artist-director collaboration, and it was a true friendship between us.

Is the very fact that Leopoldstadt is being staged today a confirmation or a sign of hope that international and Russian culture can be reunited, despite current situation in the world? Can other playwrights in the world follow Tom Stoppard’s example?

This is a very difficult question. Everyone has to decide for him or herself, but trust in each other should remain. If this production helps a little bit towards the process of getting this trust back, it will be very good, and I will be happy. Our production will premiere on June 16, 2023. It has been a long process with several years including translation and the break for the time of the pandemic, but practically there was not much rehearsal time – we started about a year ago.