Published November 5, 2004
There´s nothing quite as sad as seeing an elderly Russian woman standing on a corner, peddling the medals the party awarded her for service to the motherland, the only thing she has left to sell after the collapse of both the party and the state that she had counted on to support her in old age.
The first time I went to Russia five years ago, a Russian professor told me people had gotten used to a state of perpetual crisis. What that means is that the hardy Russians have all in one way or another learnt to deal with the situation. Some people grow potatoes in their back yard, colonels drive taxis at night when pay is not forthcoming, somebody´s cousin owns a truck and in the weekend they run a delivery service. Every car can be hailed as a taxi and every spare room is let out. But this also means that the crisis situation is not likely to be resolved anytime soon, neither from above nor below.
It is this that is the background for Black Milk, a new play by the 27 year old playwright Vassily Sigarev and his first to make it to the Reykjavík stage. Sigarev is a bright young thing in European playwriting these days, but not very popular in his home country where he tends to be denounced as a dilantette and drunk. Perhaps his very dark and gloomy depictions of modern day Russia are hard for his countrymen to bear, just as Laxness descriptions of rural Iceland made him disliked by the farmers in this country, some of whom still hold a grudge.
The aspiring New Russians in Black Milk travel the countryside selling overpriced toasters and the not so new Russians sell homemade -and in some cases lethal- vodka on the side.
The stage looks simple but effective. A run down train station with a booth spelling “Kacca.” The characters all look stereotypically Russian: the old drunk singing patriotic songs, the elderly lady with her headscarf, the young man with the shaved head wearing trainers; the Russian lowlife archetype evident in films such as the Danish I Kina Spiser de Hunde.
Whether this is an accurate depiction of rural Russia I can only guess. But once the actors start to speak, you cannot believe these characters are anything but real; they draw you in until you almost want to get out again. Usually a performance of a new play is judged from the quality of the text, the playwriting itself. But here, the very notion that you are watching a play is quickly forgotten.
I´ve never seen acting as intense on the Icelandic stage, never seen actors perform this close to the edge. As the play progresses you almost feel you should get up and try to stop Ljovtsík from beating up poor Shura, and you´re not even sure whether it’s the characters or the actors themselves you´re worried about.
As things come to a head, Shuras small hope of starting a better life is quickly estinguished by her lover. The menance actor Ólafur Egill Ólafsson manages to put into his denounciation of her past establishes him as easily the best actor of his generation, in this country at the very least. By the time it is all over, and the actors come out for their accolades, they are still visibly shaking, their hearts racing as are those of the audience. Perhaps they are still acting now, but if so, it only further demonstrates their ability. Small wonder that the play is only performed once every two weeks. Doing this every night would no doubt push the actors to the very brink of sanity. But the next time they do come out, those present will be in for an unforgettable experience.