When Alan Lyddiard invited Lev Dodin of St Petersburg to lead his

group's rehearsals in Newcastle, he never dreamed the world-famous

director would accept. He did, and theatre north and south of the Border

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has benefited, as John Linklater reports

IMAGINE with what trepidation Alan Lyddiard picked up the telephone

the day he decided to call the Maly Drama Theatre of St Petersburg. It

was quite a request. He was asking for the Maly's world-famous artistic

director, Lev Dodin, to come to Newcastle and lead rehearsals of

Northern Stage's opening show of the spring season.

On a scale of audacity, that would rank with Perth Rep asking if Peter

Brook was free to direct its pantomime. That is no exaggeration. In

interviews I have been given over the past year by Brook and Dodin, both

have talked about each other's work with equal admiration, and few would

hesitate to describe them as the two most influential artists of world

theatre today.

Lyddiard, of course, is slightly well less well known, and the

international standing of Northern Stage may have risen slightly since

he left Theatre Around Glasgow (TAG) last year to fill the position of

artistic director that had fallen empty during the previous year while

the company did not even appear to have its own stage to work upon.

A more cautious soul than Lyddiard would not have risked the

humiliation. When he found himself speaking to the Maly literary

manager, Michael Stronin, he talked about the marvellous work of the

company he had been privileged to see touring to Glasgow over the past

five years, culminating with the unforgettable Gaudeamus which packed

out the Tramway last Mayfest. And would Lev Dodin like to come over to

work on Stars in the Morning Sky?

To Lyddiard's astonishment Stronin indicated that the invitation might

be attractive. Lyddiard claims that Stronin, Dodin's right-hand man at

the Maly and his personal translator outside of St Petersburg, in fact

responded: ''Stars in the Morning Sky? Yeh, OK.''

At any rate, Dodin opened rehearsals in Newcastle last week. Clearly,

the choice of the play was an important factor in his agreeing to come.

Stars in the Morning Sky, Alexander Galin's satire on Brezhnev's Soviet

Union, was the first of the major pieces Dodin brought to Britain when

it premiered at the 1988 Mayfest and later won that year's Olivier Award

for best foreign play. Work started last Monday when Dodin read the

entire text in Russian, with full stage directions, to the Newcastle

cast. They never understood a word. But they received a strong flavour.

Dodin told them: ''This is a play about dirty issues and dirty people.

We will need clean minds to approach it.'' Then work began. They moved

on to Stronin's own translation of the piece about a group of Russian

prostitutes confined to barracks during the window-dressing operation on

a Moscow which had become the focus of world attention for the 1980

Olympics.

This weekend Lyddiard, Dodin and the cast talked about the rehearsal

process at a workshop for theatre directors who attended from both sides

of the Border. It emerged that during the first of a four-week rehearsal

period not a single actor's movement or piece

of blocking had been attempted. Dodin, accustomed to rehearsal periods

of a minimum of six months for his work, had declined to depart from his

normal tangential approach to the work in hand, while stressing that

everything he was doing was an essential part of the rehearsal process.

Through Stronin, he talked to the cast about the political and social

history of the Soviet Union which led up to the international showpiece

of the 1980 Olympics. The cast were shown documentary film of Moscow

prostitutes. They were told of the 1970s survey of 16-year-old

schoolgirls who were asked to what job they aspired. International

prostitute came first on the perceived top earnings list.

The next part of the process appeared to be designed to encourage the

cast to learn about themselves. Each of the seven actors was asked to

recount the history of their previous 24 hours. The object, in the words

of one, was ''to relate the truth of our own lives to a part in the

play''. There was talk from the cast about the intensity of the

discipline and concentration required from Dodin for the work. Hours had

been spent discussing single passages of the play. Actors had been

suddenly ''hot-seated'' by Dodin, asked to provide summaries of the

course the discussion had been taking. And throughout, there had been

the constant reassertion that all of this was part of the rehearsal

process.

Dodin, for his part, told the workshop that his central principle as a

director was to preserve the sense of being at a complete loss over what

to do. He detested the notion of the director arriving at rehearsals

with a thick book of answers. Being at a loss was the most important

stimulus to exploration. He dreamed of a performance that was born, not

made and not brought off a production line. The director's job was to

resist his or her experience in finding solutions, because the moment

that naivety was lost, so also was the main quality of the work. He told

the workshop: ''You can't learn if you already think you know. The

director must always be a pupil before art, a pupil before a perfection

we can't reach, and a pupil before nature, which is always richer than

we can be.''

If all that smacks of preposterous indulgence, it is revealing to

listen to the responses of Dodin's cast and workshop audience. The

actors communicated a genuine sense of having been inspired. Lyddiard

believed he had stolen a ''short cut'' worth three months of work for

the rehearals he will take over this week. The directors in the audience

believed they had witnessed, in the words of John Mitchell of the

Traverse, a remarkable affirmation of the spiritual dimension of

theatre-making.

My own observation is that it is the first time I have heard

practitioners talking about theatre over an extended period when the

subject of money or funding has not even been mentioned. That was both

refreshing and liberating. The most valuable currency under discussion

was rehearsal time, acknowledging that the average rehearsal period in

Britain is three and a half weeks, but even that remained secondary to

the quality of the work as the most crucial element.

Dodin is undoubtedly a charismatic teacher, and the weekend brought a

vivid reminder that he is not just artistic director of the Maly Drama

Theatre but also a professor of the Theatre Institute of St Petersburg.

That dual role, which ensures that student productions (like Gaudeamus)

can become part of the Maly repertoire, and graduates (after an intake

of 25 from 4000 auditioned for a four-year course) can become part of

the Maly company, reflects a unique structure we can only envy.

Dodin has an enormous amount to teach us about how theatre can be

made, and that much must have been obvious to anyone who saw Gaudeamus

last year. It is to the credit of the Scottish Arts Council that, under

intense financial pressure for bread-and-butter demands, resources were

made available to allow 10 theatre directors from Scotland to attend

Dodin's workshop, extending the class he held in the Borders last year.

The future benefits of the exercise may prove intangible, but we will

be able to judge the effect on Northern Stage's Stars in the Morning

Sky. It opens at Newcastle Playhouse on April 21 and runs until May 1.