Alexandrinsky Theatre days

St. Petersburg’s Alexandrinsky Theatre is about to open its new stage and premiere a new play,  Nevsky Prospekt (Nevsky Avenue), which crams the entire history of St. Petersburg’s main thoroughfare from the times of Gogol to the present together in one space. 

In addition to Nevsky Avenue, the Alexandrinsky Theatre will stage three more iconic productions from May 15th to 23rd: The Government Inspector, The Double and The St. Petersburg Tales.

About the play

The new production of Nevsky Prospekt will go down in Alexandrinsky Theatre history, and perhaps Russian theatre in general. The new actually shows more of Daniil Kharms’ sentiment rather than the intoxicating melodiousness of Gogol’s language.

There is little left in the sense of the classic opening passage: “There is nothing finer than Nevsky Avenue, not in Petersburg anyway: it is the making of the city. What splendor does it lack, that fairest of our city thoroughfares? I know that not one of the poor clerks that live there would trade Nevsky Avenue for all the blessings of the world...”

The play’s main idea was to walk along present-day Nevsky Prospekt from Palace Square to Vosstaniya Square, taking down the monologues and dialogues of its permanent residents and occasional passers-by and then mold the city mosaics into a portrait of contemporary Nevsky Avenue in the rehearsal halls of the Alexandrinsky Theatre.

This theatrical experiment – a mixture of excerpts from Nikolai Gogol’s original short story and almost word-for-word renditions from modern-day Nevsky Avenue – is the result of a creative collaboration.

That’s why the play’s posters, where the director’s name usually takes a prominent place, list the names of 19 people who worked on the production. And where posters usually designate roles and cast, left to right, this play’s bill lists almost the entire young generation of the Aleksandrinsky Theatre company.

The ultimate goal was to make a laid-back, humorous and unpretentious production. It was probably the first time that obscene words were spoken on this stage with such gusto, frequency and meaning.

Obscenities that may spare the ears of visitors walking down Nevsky Avenue could hardly have escaped locals. Indeed, for local residents having easy access to the celebrated thoroughfare, Nevsky Avenue is not so much one of the world’s most impressive streets as a litmus test capable of revealing whether everything really is that good here.

And even more generally: is life in this city really so beautiful?

Valery Fokin’s take on the obscenities in the younger generation’s production was definitive: “Looking at modern-day life, and Nevsky Avenue today, it’s pretty much ubiquitous. The quantity and the frequency, however, is a different matter. But to pretend it is out of the picture would be dishonest.”

What we have is a portrait of present-day Nevsky Avenue that is wholly unforgiving, with human folly in spades and vivid Petersburg archetypes, deceptive dreams and a vibrant culture that has long since become a means to sell things – just look at Gogol and Dostoyevsky dressed up as hamburgers.

A graceful 19th-century girl has turned into a hooded rude old woman. Khlestakov is presented as a migrant worker called Nurik, with such an overwhelming Napoleon complex that this sub-plot alone deserves to be singled out into a separate play starring Valentin Zakharov.

A young man made up as Pushkin, with a fiery gaze and refined manners, turns out to be a pick pocket. The cast and the audience also switch places: the spectators are seated on the stage, while actors play on a rostrum in the auditorium. The tsar’s box is transformed into a brothel, complete with a stripper’s pole in the center...

So, Nevsky Avenue turns out to be a total fraud. And this is the real Gogol spirit: “Nevsky Avenue deceives at all hours, but most of all when night falls... and when the devil himself lights the street lamps to show everything in false colors.”

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