‘Can you speak Russian? No? So why go to the theatre when you can’t understand a word?’ My challenger (English) was incredulous that I’d asked one of the Russian helpers on the British Council tour, whose mother had been a principal dancer with the Kirov, to find me, if at all possible, a ticket to a play. There was a performance of Anna Akhmatova’s poetry, she’d told me. The legendary Alla Demidova would be performing; the director was Kirill Serebrennikov, a daring force in the Russian avant-garde; and it would be taking place in the Gogol Centre, a former warehouse designed in industrial cool with gorgeous Constructivist lettering that makes the word Гоголь look like the limbs of an Alexandra Exter puppet.
It was the premiere, packed with an alternative-looking, very stylish crowd. Demidova drifted inconsequentially onto the stage, then struck a pose, raised her head, stiffened her back, extended her jewelled hands, and became the Akhmatova of the portraits and the photographs. Her performance was dramatising some of the best known raging laments: ‘Requiem’, ‘Northern Elegies’, ‘Poem without a Hero’. Ferocious music rose from the three harps on stage, drums and a huge gong; behind her, montages of newsreels and photographs flickered – there was Stalin giving a speech, looking much younger than usual, there were trudging marchers, refugees on icefloes, bombs, wreckage, more ice, more wretches in the long desperate siege of Leningrad, the stirring hopes, the dashed hopes, the dead and dying. Demidova was proclaiming: her Akhmatova was an angel of history, a witness and chronicler of terrible times, of her own sufferings and many others’, her savaged country’s elegist and funeral orator.
Suddenly a glorious idol of a girl appeared: a dancing soubrette in scarlet lipstick, a short skating skirt and black stockings, with a star halo radiating in spikes from her head. Was this Akhmatova’s double, her inner self, her child-soul, ‘the visitor from the wrong side of the mirror’? Perhaps she was the answer to the question:
What miracle do you see in a Siberian blizzard?
What shimmering mirage around the circle of the moon?
As I watched, and the torrent of Russian tumbled over me, I didn’t struggle. I let it carry me as here and there a word – usually a proper noun (Hamlet, Paris, Neva, Don) – glinted in the spate. Then, after nearly two hours, without a break and without once leaving the stage, Demidova dropped her head into her hands and lapsed into silence; the lights went out and the house erupted in a standing ovation. The whole experience was dreamlike and fragmented, but filled with tableaux of far more lucid brilliance than any dream.
If you can enjoy opera and dance – and music when you haven’t a clue, like me – it is not so different to go to a play in a language you don’t understand. The fashion for – the insistence on –supertitles has made librettos more important while listening to opera than they used to be, I think. I find my eyes stray up to read and I miss what’s happening on stage. At William Kentridge’s production of Lulu recently at the ENO, I kept being distracted by the complicated script scrolling above, when I should have let myself drop into the layers of his mise-en-scène.
Incidentally, Lulu made clear how deeply Kentridge is steeped in the Russians of the revolutionary generation – Eisenstein, Moholy-Nagy. In St Petersburg, where I went after Moscow, I stayed in the Hotel Angleterre where the poet Sergei Yesenin killed himself; he was the poet who was Isadora Duncan’s lover, and I mention this only because Edward Gordon Craig, another of her lovers, was the stage designer who pioneered graphic abstraction on stage in Europe and America. He was another living presence in the production at the Gogol.
Unintelligibility has become interesting to me as a far more common state – with its own benefits – than has been recognised. Some of the most involving and passionate moments of a reading life can be baffling. In my first encounters with Rebecca, The Waste Land, Waiting for Godot, Dante’s Paradiso, I could grasp very little of what was being said, either at the level of the words or in the larger picture of narrative and thought. Yet these works absorbed me utterly, and their feel has remained vivid in memory; they felt intense and alive and their power is and was contagious – they made me feel intense and alive too. There’s something about attending to a work beyond lucidity that’s like learning a language when young, or finding your way around a neighbourhood.
The pleasures of unintelligibility have been wonderfully explored by nonsense poets and storytellers like Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, and some of the greatest makers of such literature have been Russian: Velimir Khlebnikov, for example. Khlebnikov revelled in the sound of words and in the feelings that the sheer noise of plosives, gutturals and fricatives could excite, when arranged in patterns and rhythms, without much design on semantic translucency:
Bo-beh-o-bi, sang the lips,
Veh-eh-o-mi, sang the glances,
Pi-eh-eh-o, sang the brows,
Li-eh-eh-ey, sang the visage,
Gzi-gzi-gzeh-o, sang the chain.
The effects can be joyous or bitter; but the energy of improvisation makes for another kind of sense, as the listener escapes from linguistic intelligibility into free-form verbal music.