All that glitters
18 April 2019
Pushkin is repurposed for beautiful ends in TANYA, says Nathan Dunn
To me, a theatre show that can be described as a ‘meditation’ is a show that opts for a fluid presentation of information that is both introspective and interrogative in order to provoke conceptually-based reflections for an audience. It neglects traditional storytelling structure in a bid to evoke alternative thought. In unpretentious terms, it’s a show that usually doesn’t have a beginning, middle and end but is full of content presented in interesting ways that leans towards one idea or many similar ideas. TANYA is an especially fascinating case study for me with this argument, as although it makes no claims to be one or the other, it seems to be both story and meditation – layered seamlessly atop of each other.
My first commendations must go to Flora Wilson Brown’s impressive handling of the adaptation. She successfully wills her way through the skeleton of Pushkin’s novel in verse and totally reinvents the narrative from the inside out, giving it a texture and flavour that perfectly encapsulates the emotional jeopardy of the privileged millennial experience. Although at face value it might have a Skins-like aesthetic, this re-imagination of 19th-century Russian literature is predictably more sophisticated than that. The four characters constantly push against the monolithic maelstrom of self-worth politics. They wage war with themselves and each other, all the while internally seeking to dismantle the constructs society has imposed them. Specifically, they claw at constructs that tell them that they need love to satisfy (and justify, even) their own existence. For some, this is self-love. For some, it’s the love of others they crave. But for all, it proves to be a messy route they navigate, and something they never ultimately solve. It’s painfully indicative of our own culture. However, that isn’t a cheaply earned reflection on how a piece of theatre is 'relevant' (that should be a prerequisite for all theatre, right?), but instead a recognition of the place this play has come from. The archaic DNA of Onegin beautifully evolves into something emotionally harrowing, intellectually antagonising and critical of its own culture – all whilst maintaining the lyrical sensibilities of Pushkin’s original text.
Jimmy Dougan’s direction is equally as admirable. He refracts the tension of youthful existentialism through an appropriately explorative lens. Naturally, despite their apt intentions, such adventurous approach has its risks. The presentation of TANYA claws at your perception, providing something tonally identifiable yet experientially complex. Despite taking place over a weekend, the piece has the feel of a play taking place in real-time. Though it is impossible to say if this and many of the other directorial caveats are intentional, it’s certainly disorientating. It arrests our attention slightly, and I’m not sure if it should. Theatrical devices feed our senses whilst invading our conscious with significance. Decisions such as gold glitter substituting the sterile whiteness of cocaine are deliberate, and this deliberation makes them all the more provocative.
In a world where it rains gold, people still bleed. TANYA successfully gives us a meditation on the human condition whilst telling us a story in a way as accessible as recalling the events of a house party gone wrong to a friend. Except we don’t have the burden of the trauma.
Image credit: Beatrice Debney