(This is an unedited version of an article that appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald on the 19/1/07. I must say, out of curiosity I saw the opening of this production and it was without doubt one of the most impressive nights of theatre I have ever seen: a bizarre and debauched blancmange of drunken dark clowning, or something like that. It's hard to explain, as you'll see.)
by Benito Di Fonzo
“What’s the angle?” I said to the editor. “One very big angle,” she said, “would be their ability to explain a very visual, very sensory and apparently very unnerving show in broken English to you on the telephone from Russia.” She was right.
Before ringing Maxim Isaev, Artistic Director of Akhe Russian Engineering Theatre, I watch a short clip on the Sydney Festival website. The extract shows an ominously silent black clown on stilts walking through what looks like a mental asylum full of catatonics, before coming to a door that opens on to a forest where, in slow motion, he hits a man with a bunch of red flowers. I am none the wiser.
It’s 10am in St. Petersburg and Maxim seems surprised: he wasn’t expecting our call and this is no doubt an early hour for a conceptual artist in a Russian winter. I decide to start simply, with the Company’s name: ‘Akhe’ (pronounced like ‘Ikea’ said very quickly.)
“It’s for no reason,” says Maxim in a thick Russian brogue. “In language no mean anything, but now it means our company.”
Okay. Maxim is one of the founders of the five member theatre group, which began by doing street performances during the cultural upheavals of Gorbachev’s Perestroika.
“It was real artistic performance: very long, very conceptual, probably very boring.”
“If you watch from beginning to end, four or five hours, it was so boring.”
Quite the salesman our Maxim, but I guess this is why “White Cabin,” the show they are bringing to Sydney Festival, is only an hour long.
“Ya, now is only one hour is not boring at all.”
What actually happens?
“It’s difficult to explain in words because we are making an unusual piece. What we are doing [has] connected pictures, images, how one image transitions into another image and so on. Nevertheless it’s a production about how pictures are influenced by the person who’s watching, how the watcher transforms it. Yah, and also normal human relations, for example man fall in love with woman but woman does not love him.”
The Guardian’s review says “This is, I think, a show about death.” Is it?
“Yes, because the show has many images it is impossible to explain, one woman after show said for sure it was first part the soul preparing for death, second part is like soul just adventure after death.”
Despite this Maxim assures me “There is some funny moments.”
A kind of dark clowning?
“Journalists call it ‘intellectual clown.’”
“I do not know I was just reading the newspaper. Just paradoxical situations, for me it’s more close to Dada.”
Akhe are known for their dislike of theatrical ‘tricks’ and use of real elements and stunts. Will “White Cabin” be dangerous?
“In this show no explosions, just open fire,” Maxim reassures me.
“Our conception is to give not character but just ourselves in special situations which are prepared by ourselves. We call ourselves not actors but creators, with real objects that are substantial, the emotions also real. We use real water, real whisky, real beer, real wine, because smell is also very important to us, for the audience smelling whisky or wine.”
The show’s pyrotechnics got Maxim in trouble in 2004 when Albuquerque Airport went into Orange Alarm after sniffer dogs smelt explosives on the four battered old suitcases Akhe carry their show around the world in.
“They thought we are transporting bomb,” says Maxim. “It was quite terrible, so serious. Agent from FBI and so on. We were in prison, but after one day they realise it was mistake. They took my prints, they think I Russian mafia.”
Assuming they make it through Mascot Maxim promises a bizarre and untraditional piece of avant-garde theatre.
“It’s another way of doing theatre, not like way of dramaturgy, it’s way of the imagination of the artist, the production looks like a live picture, also the audience is really very important to us to be a creative cooperative production, because we push audience to create [their] own show.”
It’s interactive then?
“Not really, but the audience have a little bit to work to understand it.”
They have to work?
Now I’m frightened.
Benito Di Fonzo
Akhe Russian Engineering Theatre.
Playhouse, Sydney Opera House.
January 22 – 26. $25.
Bookings 9250 7777