Travel Diary: ‘Russia’s oldest theatre company is striving to stay young’

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Travel Diary: ‘Russia’s oldest theatre company is striving to stay young’

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The Volkov Theatre is one of the buildings that stand out when you arrive in Yaroslavl, a city about four hours by train north of Moscow. Behind the theatre’s yellow neoclassical façade lies a story that began in 1750, when the Volkov Theatre company was founded by local actor Fyodor Volkov, a merchant’s son.

Photo by Alexandra Dalsbaek

The theatre has been rebuilt four times, with the current building constructed in 1911. It is an attractive addition to the city’s other tourist sites, which lie at the confluence of the Volga and Kotorosl rivers. The historical part of the town has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2005.

Anyone interested in stage plays will be enthralled to visit the Volkov Theatre, especially with the knowledge that they are watching a performance in the birthplace of Russian theatre. The drama company set up by Fyodor Volkov was the country’s first professional troupe and he was later invited to St Petersburg by Empress Elizabeth to help set up a national theatre there.

Photo by Alexandra Dalsbaek

The Volkov Theatre has a strong reputation in Russia, with many actors saying it is one of the most prestigious venues to perform in. It may be the country’s oldest professional theatre company, but it is striving to stay young and innovative and is considered to be at the cutting-edge of contemporary theatre. During our visit the cast was rehearsing a modern adaptation of the Greek myth Orpheus and Eurydice.

There are two venues for performances in the Volkov Theatre, which can seat about 1,000 people. There is the main theatre and also a smaller auditorium, where we saw a play being performed in front of a captive audience.

The Artistic Director of the theatre, Evgeny Marchelli, spoke to us about the honour and emotion he feels to work in such an historic theatre. He proudly points out that the Volkov has won four Russian Golden Mask awards – in 2005, 2011 and 2013 – and it was nominated this year in four Golden Mask categories.

Photo by Alexandra Dalsbaek

Marchelli says he is motivated to make the Volkov Theatre the best in Russia but also to keep it young, even if it is the country’s oldest. He seems to be the man for the job. Critic Jeffrey Stephens, writing in the John Hopkins University Theatre Topics journal, had this to say about a Chekhov play that Marchelli directed:

“Many is the director who searches in vain for the key to a successful staging of Chekhov’s Three Sisters …I assert that director Evgeny Marchelli’s stupefying production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, like Masha when Vershinin abandons her, cries out for commentary …Having seen many productions of the play in English translation and in the original Russian by such great Soviet directors as Georgi Tovstonogov, nothing could have prepared me for Evgeny Marchelli’s revelatory production at the Til’zit Theatre in Sovetsk, Russia. The production defied the unspoken “laws” of directing Chekhov by circumventing audience expectations, ignoring certain textual givens, and allowing the drama the sense of play and open-endedness it desperately needs to engage contemporary audiences.”

As well as the Volkov Theatre, visitors to Yaroslavl also have plenty of other sites to see in the city, with some 140 historical monuments. Spectacular architecture includes the Spaso-Preobrazhensky Cathedral, the Cathedral of the Assumption and the Elijah the Prophet church.

There is also a permanent circus; the city’s Planetarium, named after Russia’s first female cosmonaut, Valentina Tereshkova; and the city has a zoo well worth visiting. Visitors can also take a cruise on the famous Volga River, or stroll along its esplanades, and visit the Museum of Music and Time, one of Russia’s first private museums. It exhibits bells, samovars, irons, phonographs and musical instruments.

By Seamus Kearney

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