Nov 16, 2011

Jonah the (Russian) Musical

My first three months in Russia have been filled with surprises. I didn’t expect to arrive to three days of blazing sunshine, to feed new Russian friends breakfast butties on my birthday, to sing with the university choir in three of the city’s main music venues, including the grand “musical theatre”, to learn to communicate in Russian so quickly or to have to wait until today for snow, and I frequently told people at home who suggested that I might find myself a beautiful Russian girl that it would never happen…

However, possibly most unexpected of all was getting a fairly major part in a musical organised by a church here. After two months of rehearsals and a week’s camp in the forest, Jonah the musical was performed to a full house of over 500 people as part of the church’s 20th birthday celebrations. It was a weird but, for the most part, wonderful experience.

I played the role of Tsar Adad, King of Ninevah. Aware that I could never hope to deliver my lines in Russian in a convincing manner, I opted to employ the melodramatic techniques honed playing roles such as “Milky White the Cow” in Into the Woods, the priest in The Princess Bride, junky in RENT and Elbow in Measure for Measure. Over the top emotions are a forte of mine, possibly to make up for my inability to act subtly - and so Tsar Adad was a perfect role for me. Adad’s Ninevah is tormented by enough problems to make Berlusconi or Papandreou feel fortunate - the country is tormented by earthquakes, floods, starvation and air crashes. The treasury is empty, the economy has collapsed and poverty is taking hold. His public response, like all good dictators, is to shout and scream and pretend it’s all nonsense (Gaddafi would approve). My favourite line is vsex v Sibir, k Dekabristam soshlyu! - “I’ll send you all to Siberia like the Decembrists!”

Siberia is that way! (Gaddafi style)
However, having sent away the satraps, anger quickly turns to fear and misery as Adad visits his old mother and cries on her shoulder as she sings to him (“I’ve not slept all week and I eat out of a tin”) - Gordon Brown was my model…
I don't know what to do (Gordon Brown style...)
 Later however, this temperamental, pitiful character is thrown off when Adad realises that Jonah, the “man from the fish” is “the prophet from the ancient story, bearing a message from God”. With great conviction and authority, (now Brown morphs into Vladimir Vladimirovitch Putin) he commands the people to get on their knees and repent, which everyone does. Jonah tells the people they are forgiven, and they break out in joyful dancing, jazz hands and all. So I had the chance to shout, cry, tremble, command and break out into my favourite Daniel Radcliffe OTT smile, in the space of three scenes!

Repent my people! (Putin style)
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this was the strangest musical I’ve ever performed in, not only because it was in Russian and maybe 50% of the words meant nothing to me (very weird vocabulary - usually I understand a lot more than that!). The strangest thing, which horrified me at first, was that we recorded in advance all the vocals and then mimed on stage. It soon became clear why - casting was more about letting everyone join in than gathering the gifted and talented (which probably worked in my favour too!), and plenty of people, even in major roles, were either tone deaf, rhythm-less, unable to deliver lines or, in some cases, all three! Recording in advance meant that we only had to get it right once. It was also fun - I felt like a rock star with my big headphones on and the microphone almost in my mouth, as I tried again and again to pronounce all the words correctly!

Rock star... not exactly!
Rehearsals were also peculiar - it was usually just me and the musical director, and I only rehearsed with others in my scenes during the camp. The musical director and director didn’t communicate, so one would tell me one thing and then the other would say something else. Staging was being worked out during the dress rehearsal (reminded me of the Lancaster days at Birkdale!), we were still rehearsing 10 minutes before the performance was supposed to begin (but it started 15 minutes late) and the music was already starting when I had my eye liner put on!

It sounds like a recipe for disaster, which is what I feared for most of the rehearsal period. However, it wasn’t. Most people mimed effectively, and so the use of the recording didn’t detract too much from the performance. Effective lighting appeared out of nowhere. Flashy costumes appeared the morning of the performance, dancers rose to the occasion and the enthusiastic full house (warmed up by a rousing televangelist style sermon filled with “Hallelujahs” in the morning service) gave us all a lift.

 The final refrain in the musical is On derzhit tselij mir svoej rukej (loose translation - He’s got the whole world in his hands). While I think this must be an over-simplification - it is hard to believe that God really, explicitly guides everything that happens on Earth when there is so much suffering, hardship and sadness, I continue to be very thankful for the pleasant surprises life in Russia keeps on providing. Slava Bogu. Praise God. 
(Almost) the whole cast.
A beautiful Russian girl...

1 comment: