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Dodin's solution: being at a loss

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.

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He did, and theatre north and south of the Border 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.

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