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Thursday, 14 November, 2002, 15:25 GMT
Georgian puppeteer thrives on struggle
Rezo Gabriadze with set for Stalingrad (photo: Patrick Jackson)
Gabriadze recreates Stalingrad on a table-sized stage

For Georgian theatre director Rezo Gabriadze, his premiere in London this month had a special significance.

The man whose work as a screenwriter in Soviet cinema produced some of its best-loved films used to identify with Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, seeing himself as a castaway from world culture on the desert island of a totalitarian state.

I always laugh when I hear that the theatre is in crisis because theatre thrives on crisis

Rezo Gabriadze
Now touring the world with his own ground-breaking puppet troupe, he takes delight in testing his productions on new audiences as well as gleaning new ideas and information.

But his work is still suffused with the harrowing experience of the Soviet years, and none more so than that of World War II which he depicts in his latest production, The Battle of Stalingrad.

von Paulus puppet (photo: Patrick Jackson)
The German commander von Paulus embodies war in the play
On a stage little bigger than a table, delicately created puppets representing everything from the actual soldiers to the very ants which creep across the shell-shattered steppe are cut down by the merciless violence.

When interviewed at the Barbican in London, where the play was running, Gabriadze said he had first considered the subject - a requiem for Stalingrad - when invited to stage a play in Moscow in 1994 "on a Russian theme".

But at the mention of the idea, one leading Russian critic at the time told him that no-one would be interested.

"If this is considered boring then what sort of a world are we living in?" Gabriadze replied indignantly.

figure of maternal love (photo: Patrick Jackson)
Gabriadze designs the intricate puppets himself
The director remembers how, at the age of six, his mother, his grandmother and all the women of his village - where nearly every man was fighting at the front - reacted to news of the victory.

"There was a sigh of relief and a feeling of exaltation that it was over, that there was light at the end of the tunnel," he says.

Georgia, whose population today is only five million, lost 350,000 people in the war and Gabriadze is haunted by the memory of young women dressed in the black of mourning on the streets of Kutaisi in the immediate post-war years.

But the emotional significance of the battle apart, Gabriadze says he was drawn to the theme simply because he was free in the post-Soviet era to choose it himself.

"There was no longer any chance of someone awarding me a Lenin Prize for it," he remarks with a smile.

A laboratory for the theatre

Rezo Gabriadze
Born in Georgia in 1936
Screenplays include Kin Dza Dza, Mimino, Don't Be Sad and Passport
Other puppet productions include Alfred and Violetta (based on la Traviata) and The Autumn Of Our Spring
Puppet theatre for Gabriadze is not an end in itself. He moved into the genre in the 1980s in frustration at the control exerted by Soviet censors over his beloved cinema.

If the Party's "editors" viewed marionettes as less of a threat to Communist orthodoxy than films, then for Gabriadze they were an ideal tool for conducting free experiments in theatre.

He believes that his Stalingrad could easily be performed by real actors on a full-sized stage with the same effect, but time is pressing for the 67-year-old and he finds it easier to communicate his vision of modern drama through puppets - a "laboratory for the theatre", as he calls it.

Gabriadze would be the first to admit that his theatre, which seats at most 100 people at its home venue in Tbilisi, depends largely on the revenue earned from foreign tours.

Horse puppets from Stalingrad (photo: Patrick Jackson)
Gabriadze's theatre continues performing in Tbilisi during tours
The Georgian Government does what it can to help the country's 60 or so theatres but can afford to do little more than meet the venues' heating bills.

Yet Gabriadze, casting his mind back to the uncertain worlds in which Moliere and Shakespeare worked, is amused by the idea of troubled times for the theatre:

"I always laugh when I hear that the theatre is in crisis because theatre thrives on crisis." And touring, he says, is essential for the success of any theatre.

Georgia in film

Cinema is more problematic.

For such a small country, Georgia has made a major contribution to cinema, from its very infancy to great Soviet directors such as Mikhail Kalatozov and, latterly, Otar Ioseliani, now based in France.

Rezo Gabriadze (photo: Patrick Jackson)
Gabriadze has just finished a novel set in the war period
The French have, indeed, been leading the way in injecting much-needed finance into the arts in Georgia and the coming six months see a marathon tour of the country for Gabriadze's theatre.

Yet the cinema's troubles are not just financial: the "language of cinema" in the USSR, the director says, began to lag behind the rest of the world in the 1980s.

In effect, "from the 1930s all of our arts dropped out of the world context and it affected us deeply", says Gabriadze.

He now pins his hopes on a new generation of Georgian directors working and studying in the West.

Robinson Crusoe, as he puts it, has shaved off his beard and the arts in Georgia and the rest of the former USSR are "rejoining the world".

The Tbilisi Marionette Theatre's Battle of Stalingrad is to tour France until spring 2003 before moving on to North America

See also:

07 Nov 97 | From Our Own Correspondent
31 Dec 01 | Entertainment
07 Jul 02 | From Our Own Correspondent
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