Cossack epic a tour de force of stagecraft

Ma Yue
"And Quiet Flows the Don" is the talk of the town among theatergoers. The play is an epic not only in dramatic sweep but also in length. Each performance lasts eight hours.
Ma Yue
Cossack epic a tour de force of stagecraft
Ti Gong

Russian folk tunes punctuate Cossack life in "And Quiet Flows The Don."

“And Quiet Flows the Don” is the talk of the town among theatergoers. The play, like the Russian novel it is drawn from, is an epic not only in dramatic sweep but also in length. Each performance in Shanghai lasts eight hours.

The play, presented by St Petersburg’s Masterskaya Theater, will have two performances at SAIC Shanghai Culture Square. The first performance lasted from 6pm yesterday to 2am today. The final performance starts at 2pm tomorrow.

The play is based on Russian author Mikhail Sholokhov’s four-volume novel, which depicts life of the Cossacks during World War I, the Russian Revolution and the Russian civil war. Sholokhov won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1965 for the novel.

The storyline revolves around the Melekhov family of Tatarsk. The second-eldest son, Grigori, is in a love affair with a married woman named Aksinia, whose husband is in the army. His father forces him to marry a woman named Natalya. But the romance continues, and Grigori and Aksinia run away together.

World War I starts and Grigori is mobilized into the army. He is wounded several times and honored for his courage. He even saves the life of Aksinia’s husband, but that fails to heal the deep feud between the two families.

When the Russian Revolution breaks out, Grigori joins the Bolsheviks but later becomes disillusioned and leaves that cause.

Russian director Grigory Kozlov was very ambitious in distilling the work into eight hours. It was initially a 24-hour play before he decided to render it more “audience-friendly.”

“We tried the 24-hour version in rehearsals,” said Kozlov. “But after tightening the pace of the story and finding more efficient ways of changing scenes, we managed to shorten it. I didn’t pay that much attention to the length, to be honest. I just wanted to tell the complete story.”

Cossack epic a tour de force of stagecraft
Ti Gong

Russian director Grigory Kozlov

Kozlov said his love of the novel motivated him.

“I had dreamed of creating a play out of the novel for 10 years before I eventually managed to do so,” said the 64-year-old. “My grandfather read the novel over and over. It also became my favorite book.”

Kozlov added: “This is a story about insignificant individuals on a huge historical canvas. Sholokhov’s work can be appreciated by people from all countries, just like Shakespeare’s works, because it tackles common aspects of human nature.”

Kozlov graduated from the St Petersburg State Theater Arts Academy in 1989 and has been teaching there since 1995.

Graduates from his classes have distinguished themselves with their professionalism and adherence to the Stanislavski system — an approach to training actors that Konstantin Stanislavski developed in the first half of the 20th century.

In 2010, Kozlov and his acting and directing classes founded the Masterskaya Theater as a professional dramatic theater. The leading characters in the play are all Kozlov students. Anton Momot, who plays Grigori, and Sofya Karabulina, who plays Aksinia, joined the Masterskaya Theater after graduation in 2014.

Momot majored in drama and film, and also practiced boxing. Kozlov said he immediately knew that the young man was destined to become Grigori the moment they met. “And Quiet Flows the Don” is the only play in which Momot has performed since joining the theater.

“We usually spend much more than eight hours in rehearsals, so the length of the performance has never been a problem for me,” said Momot. “I am used to it.”

Karabulina also dismissed concerns about the stamina of performers in an eight-hour play.

“Sometimes, actors and actresses are required to have an iron will, just like the soldiers,” she said. “Kozlov is a very demanding director, who cares a lot about details. For example, he refuses to start a rehearsal if the stage has not been properly cleaned. We have all been required to read through Stanislavski’s works and keep them in mind.”

Cossack epic a tour de force of stagecraft
Ti Gong

Anton Momot plays the protagonist Grigori Melekhov.

“And Quiet Flows the Don” premiered in 2013 in Russia. Shanghai is the third stop of the play’s maiden tour of China, with previous performances in Harbin, capital of Heilongjiang Province that borders Russia, and in Beijing.

Since many Russian folk songs are referenced throughout the novel, the play is also filled with singing and dancing. Renowned Chinese actor Pu Cunxin, who saw the play when it was performed last week in Beijing, hailed it as a success.

“The play is no longer a novel but has managed to create an image that describes the fate of the Cossacks,” said Pu, who is also the chairman of the China Theater Association. “Chinese drama sometimes depends too much on plot and storytelling. In ‘And Quiet Flows the Don,’ the performers sing to express themselves, which is romantic and emotionally revealing.”

This is not the first time Shanghai audiences have managed to endure plays as long as eight hours. “A Dream Like a Dream,” an eight-hour play by US-born, Taiwan-based playwright Lai Sheng-chuan, was performed in Shanghai in 2013.

But for SAIC Shanghai Culture Square, which is known for staging musicals, “And Quiet Flows the Don” was a bit of a daring decision.

“The 2,000-seat center has a big stage, which is usually considered unsuitable for plays because the audience in the back has to strain to see performers’ faces,” said Fei Yuanhong, vice general manager of the Shanghai Culture Square Theater Management Co.

“This play is an exception, given its tight pace, practical plot, quality stage setting and expressive performance,” said Fei. “It will bring audiences a unique experience. The older generation in China has been strongly influenced by and emotionally connected to Russian literature. Younger people may have heard of the novel but never read it.”

The performance is in Russian with Chinese subtitles. There are three intervals in the play — two for 20 minutes and one for 45 minutes. To keep the mood, a quick, Russian-style meal is provided during the 45-minute interval and included in the ticket price. The venue also provides blankets, cushions and charger rental services.

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