Going to see a theatrical performance of a fairy tale which isn’t a pantomime is an oddly disconcerting experience for Mama. But this was the mission she took on at the Historical and Ethnographic Theatre in Moscow.
Which, incidentally, is a fabulous space. The classical façade notwithstanding, inside someone has gotten busy with the carpentry, and the foyer transports you straight to rural Russia, with the traditional wooden log cabin on your right representing the entrance to the stage, and the typical windows of your average village house on your left inviting you into the café. Wonderful conceit.
Especially when you do get inside and you find that there are rustic theatre boxes lining the sides of the auditorium, turning it into a sort of peasant Bolshoi theatre.
Mama is quietly determined to splash out for one of them as soon as she can manufacture an occasion to faintly justify it. But even the sound and lighting guys and gals at the back had their own little wooden hut to hide out in. It’s all really really cool.
And very intimate as the space is not vast. You’ll get a decent view from wherever you sit, particularly as for our afternoon performance at least, the place was only about half full. This sort of thing is important when you are as short as me and can have your enjoyment of a show ruined by an incautiously tall Papa in front of the seat you are determined to have for your very own.
Anyway. The Historical and Ethnographic Theatre, being a Historical and Ethnographic Theatre, has a regular programme of weekend performances of traditional tales, told in a traditional way and including traditional folk singing and traditional costumes from around the various regions of the Russian Federation and other similar territories.
On the day we went the story was entitled ‘Marya Morevna and Koschei the Deathless’, which is one of the more Slavic ones.
Mama was a bit worried about that, to be honest. She thinks that Russian children’s tales can be a bit frightening – certainly the one about the witch Baba Yaga and her hut on a chicken’s leg surrounded by glowing skulls in her childhood book of magical realism from around the world gave her the screaming heebie jeebies way back when – and the idea of an unkillable antagonist who locks up young women and insists they marry him is not encouraging of peaceful dreams for when we get back home.
No, much better to stick to the ones for really young children, like Kolobok, the chippy little bread roll who gets eaten by a fox in the last act.
But she relaxed when the entire first half of the story seemed not to be about Kosehi at all, but the archetypal Slav hero, Ivan Tsarevich, and his search for his fated wife, Marya Morevna, complete with comedy animal side kicks.
Mama was quite pleased about that plot. Particularly as the entirety of the contribution of the other female characters aside from Marya Morevna, Ivan’s sisters, was to get hitched to strange wizards in the first five minutes. Important, of course, because these wizards would be continually rescuing Ivan from the consequences of his folly for the rest of the play, but hardly a role to aspire to. Mama says.
Marya Morevna herself seemed much more promising to Mama. She’s billed as a warrior princess, for goodness sake, and indeed seems to have quite comfortably kept the dread Koschei (who did eventually make an appearance) chained to the back of her throne until Ivan turned up, got bored and let him out.
But then she was relegated to being unsuccessfully rescued by Ivan not once, not twice, but three times. She did get to wheedle the secret of his immortality out of Koshei, how very typically devious and female of her, but all that got her was allowing Ivan and his brothers-in-law to dash about and have more brave manly adventures conquering it. Mama would have been much happier had Marya been the one to lop the monster’s head off at the end.
Unsurprisingly after all that, I thought that the point of the whole thing was the new crown Marya Morevna got when she and Ivan finally got it together. Headdeskheaddeskheaddesk, says Mama, who doesn’t think she is going to have much luck persuading me that the heroine was supposed to be Baba Yaga, who also made an appearance in the second half. Nondescript headgear, the big nose and the one tooth do not compete with sparkly outfits in my eyes, even if Baba Yaga does have four fabulous horses at her command.
Naturally, my Slightly Obsessed Big Brother thought the animal characters were the best bit. In this he is generally excellently served by Russian fairy tales, where talking magical animals are frequently central, and especially excellently served by this retelling, which had foolish frogs, timid mice, clever sparrows, and earthy toads at its disposal. And, I would like to point out to Mama, all of these were female. Mama, however, does not feel that they count, not being human females after all, even if one of the toads did offer to marry Ivan if he didn’t find his Marya.
Still, that’s fairy tales for you. I really don’t know what Mama was expecting. And on the upside were the moments of rather good acting that broke out. Mama particularly enjoyed Koschei, who managed to be not just frightening, but also pathetic, and at the same time the sort of massively irritating person you actively want something faintly unpleasant to happen to all in one bewigged package.
And what’s this? A plot? Well, ok, it is a fairy tale so it rambles around a bit but still, a story with more than one basic episode is almost confusing after so many years of paring Cinderella down to the bone to fit in the business with the ghost, the underpants and the mystery parcel belonging to Buttons. Where were the broad innuendos? The cunning interplay of the traditional story and the latest pop songs? The VERY LOUD soundsystem? The fancy sets and the many set changes? The pyrotechnics? The audience participation? The men dressed as women? The singalong? Not… actually… necessary for an afternoon’s enjoyment, you say?
Well, Mama remains skeptical about that as these aspects do serve to remove her attention from involuntary feminist critique. But we certainly do not and will definitely be going back to the Historical and Ethnographic Theatre to see some of the other performances. Vassilya the Beautiful sounds suitably focused on pretty dresses and prince charmings to me. Mama is nodding with suspiciously enthusiastic agreement…
This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about Baba Yaga, witch, crone and archetype.
Address: 3 Ulitsa Rudnevoi, Moscow, 129327
Performances: The performances of plays probably more interesting for adults Thursday through Sunday at 7pm. Children’s shows, including but by no means limited to Marya Morevna and Koschei the Deathless, are on Saturdays and Sundays at 12 noon.
Ticket prices: Between 300 roubles (£3) and 800 roubles (£8) depending on where you sit. Oddly, there is no information about how you hire a box.
Public Transport: The nearest station to the Historical and Ethnographic Theatre is actually the overland train station. You want to get one of the local elektrichka trains out of Yarolslavskaya Station (metro Komsomolskaya) and get off at Losinostrovskaya. If you head straight out of the station and keep going down the road, the theatre will be a couple of minutes walk on your left.
The nearest metro is Babushkinskaya, and from there it is either a good 20 minutes walk straight up Menjinskovo Ulitsa or you can get the 124, 174, or 238 buses or the 88 or 38 marshutka and get off at the station. The theatre is on a parallel road. You need the last wagon of the train, turn right into the underpass and right up the stairs, cross over Minjinskovo Ulitsa to the bus stop on the other side (or turn left and keep walking, if that’s your decision).
By other means: Well, you might be able to park in the station car park.