Emperor of the Self in the City and beyond

Against the backdrop of world events and personalities that at times seem to effortlessly cross the boundary between what is real and what is imaginary, a continuous theatrical production and spectacle reflects on one man’s life journey. A new incarnation of the classic, Ibsen’s Peer Gynt has been gradually unfolding in the center of Moscow, Russia, at the renowned School of Dramatic Art Theater (SDART, on Sretenskaya Street). This theater, that was founded by the famed and innovative theater director Anatoly Vasilyev in 1987 (now at Comedy Francais, Paris), is an established place of originality, where a number of performances take place under the direction of Vasilyev’s disciples and other well–known artists, such as Alexander Ogarev, Igor Yacko, and others.

The project is realized in steps, drawn out in many months and performances, each unfolding as one of the life stages of the main hero. As he goes on in search for himself, he encounters rather outrageous characters on his life path - Great Bøyg, Troll Princess, Memnon and the Sphinx - that highlight different aspects of his soul. And at last, he is pronounced an “emperor of the self", at a mad house. And, if as the viewers we sometimes find oneselves perplexed about exactly who plays whom on the stage among the two actors and when - then the experience provides us with a window into the dream-ridden inner world of the man, as he goes through his eventful long fairy-tale-like life, trying to find himself, and to separate the real from the imaginary.

The score for the current play is full, unabridged Henrik Ibsen’s text that consists of five-act, 38-scene poem. And, the directing and acting is performed entirely by just the two young but experienced actors – Eugene Polyakov and Olga Bondareva – who themselves played and studied under Anatoly Vasilyev and his prominent followers. Eugene and Olga take turns and play the entire cast of the numerous real and mythical characters of the life-long saga of Peer Gynt. The decision to undertake such an ambitious endeavor by the two is not only an original and a bold one, but also obviously is quite challenging. However, such decision is supported by the view that all of the illustrious creatures in the story, after all, can be seen as a creation of the mind of just one big man – the Norwegian country lad and a poetic dreamer Peer.

The separation of real from the imaginary, or at times integrating both of these opposites in the play is not a trivial task by any means, and it also strikingly resonates with the concurrent events on the world stage - in Russia, in America, Europe, and everywhere. The viewers, drawn into the fantastic theatricals, are inevitably invited to reflect as well on their own life-long dreams, fantasy, and reality. The life, and love story of Peer Gynt in the play, with all of its colorful and unlikely adventures, twists and turns, reminds a vivid nightdream where perhaps it is hard to remember all specific disjointed details and personages upon waking - yet the feeling remains, as though an entire life has just transpired, in a different world.

Previous relatively recent big productions of Peer Gynt include Mark Zakharov’s LENCOM Theater producing a TV-version (2012), and an animated film by the director Vadim Kurchevsky (SouzMultfilm, 1979), in Moscow. In another side of the world, in 2005 in Chicago, a Peer Gynt production took place on a similarly-small stage, The Artistic Home, with a cast of twelve actors, by the director Kathy Scambiatterra. The play received two Jeff Nominations then.

Among historical and developed approaches to the epic tale should be mentioned C.J. Jung’s classic archetypes and the “collective unconscious” that addresses a degree of our implicit knowledge of what is going on in this dream-like story that reincarnates itself in the past and in the current public life. As well as a common theme of Kierkegaardian choice, that is necessary for Peer Gynt to undertake to meet the reality and avoid an infinite procrastination in facing it, on his ‘livsreise’. (Journey of life in Norwegian. Henrik Ibsen himself wrote that, “If only I could master that demon of procrastination that goes about like a roaring lion and devours all my good intentions”.) Another distinct approach relates the necessity to grieve the loss that Peer Gynt avoids at all costs, escaping into an infinite loop of funny fantasy and dreams. And thus no reparation is taking place until he finds a genuine love with Solveig. Similarly to Norwegian tales, Russian fairy tales also have a character named Kryvda (or The Crooked), who leads a traveler astray in circles and prevents him to find one’s straight path.

The two actors and co-creators, Eugene and Olga, who put much of their sparkling energy and talent into the long-lasting act, expect nothing less from their viewers than full immersion into the grandeur and fancy of the man’s fantasy world. Going from fun and exuberance to despair and everywhere in-between — a savory piece for a theater lover. It is interesting to see how the actors-directors are going to be up for the challenge to deepen their performance as they proceed into further stages of their project — just as their hero, likewise, proceeds into his life stages, in the poem. The play happens on the intimate yet spacey stage of the SDART and affords everyone a close-up view of what is one of the world’s greatest written stories.

Project Authors, Actors, and Co-Directors: Olga Bondareva and Eugene Polykov
Light Designer: Taras Mikhalevsky
Musical Arrangement: Eugene Polykov and Alexander Guryanov
Costume Designer: Vadim Andreev
Photography: Natalia Cheban
SDART Director: Olga E. Sokolova