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'Today, a theater hall is one of the very few places where people still can stop to take a look at themselves," says prominent Russian stage director Lev Dodin, who will bring his award-winning production of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya to the Israel Festival in early June.
"[The audience] doesn't have time to think about their lives while in the office, because they have to work, and the fitness club also seems a wrong place...but here, left alone in the darkness of a theater hall for a couple of hours, people can learn something about themselves that they never knew before."
The Israel Festival is hosting Dodin for the third time since the mid-'90s. Out of identification with Israel, he has agreed not to receive fees for one of the three performances, due to cuts in this year's Festival budget. "This is a spiritual place for people of different religious persuasions, and our theater productions deal with the human spirit," he said in explanation.
Uncle Vanya will be Dodin's fifth Chekhov production. As with many other Chekhov characters, Vanya is a man who must reconcile his life and what has passed him by, and come to terms with the disparity between his dreams and the reality of what he has achieved.
Played out as a series of incidents rather than as a story with a strong dramatic arc, the play mixes farce and anguish to unravel hopeless infatuations and old grudges. Central to the proceedings is Uncle Vanya, played by Sergey Kuryshev, and his niece, who have spent their lives caring for the country estate of a relative they regard as a great man. After a summer stay at the estate with the relative and his young wife, Vanya and his niece come to the painful realization that they've wasted their life efforts on a man who is as untalented as he is uncaring.
"[Chekhov] tells us a lot about our lives today. For a theater like ours, which prides itself on delving into subjects that deal with the human soul, feelings and existence, it would be illogical to not to immerse ourselves in his works," Dodin says.
So why choose Uncle Vanya in particular - a story of meaningless lives, illusions and dreams destined to be dissolved, and unrequited love?
"Uncle Vanya is probably the most beautiful Chekhov piece because it speaks so harmoniously about the eternal disharmony of human existence. I think this is what art is about - to create harmony on the ruins of tragedy."
Dodin has been leading the St. Petersburg based Maly (literally "Little" or "Minor") Theater for more than 20 years. Most of the actors are his students from different generations. He teaches at the Petersburg Theater School, conducts master classes throughout the world and stages operas at such prestigious locales, as Salzburg, Florence and Amsterdam, but has given up the idea of staging dramatic pieces abroad: "I do not believe that, working with a totally unfamiliar cast, it is possible within a short time to create anything significant."
The theater spends up to half a year on tour. "It's extremely important for us," says the director. "This is not only about garnering international recognition - it's also about our ability to gain first hand knowledge of the world and to see that all people are quite alike, they are unhappy and need protection, first and foremost from themselves."
But can people in most western countries really relate to the general suffering and unhappiness associated with the Russian people?
Absolutely, asserts the director. "And the theater hall is a good indication of it. People in theater never cry for Uncle Vanya, or for Russian people. People cry for themselves. We are all mortal, and it is terrible when constant thoughts of death prevent us from living our lives."
Dodin also believes that the faster and crazier the rhythms of everyday life become, the more serious and slow the theater should be.
"Our eight hour show Brothers and Sisters [a World War II epic placed in a village, presented in Israel several years ago] drew a packed hall. I believe that this is the kind of theater that will survive. If you do what you think is important for others, and not for yourself, the show will most probably not be interesting. When you act on what is important to you with sincerity, however, you can count on an audience response."
Uncle Vanya will be presented June 4, 5 and 6 at the Sherover Theater in Jerusalem.