Interview with HUNCHtheatre and Broadway World
Oliver Bennett and Vladimir Shcherban made a splash in 2018 when their new company, HUNCHtheatre, debuted A Hero of Our Time, a smart, stylish adaptation of the classic Russian novel of the same name.
BroadwayWorld reviewer Gary Naylor wrote that the show was "never less than theatrical, never less than compelling, never less than true to its conception", and concluded his review with a request: "More please and soon!".
Bennett and Shcherban just celebrated the first anniversary of their new company with a brief revival of A Hero, but they have so much more in the works: bilingual productions, international touring, and some potentially controversial new shows...
How would you describe A Hero of Our Time?
Oliver Bennett: A sugar rush of intrigue and excitement... is how they described it in Edinburgh. It's a kind of updating of this 19th-century Russian classic by Lermontov, which is not very well known in Britain.
Vladimir Shcherban: For me, personally, it's more than just one more show - it's about a new company, a new partnership. Finally we channeled our relationship, me and Oli, into a creative project.
A new company, a new collaboration - why did you go for this obscure 19th-century Russian novel?
Oliver: We wanted to introduce it to people who don't know it. I suppose we found it kind of interesting to do something that was a strong voice - an uncompromising, slightly unfashionable attitude now.
It's provocative - you're seeing everything through this one viewpoint, and we wanted to make that as strong as possible to get a reaction from the audience. We wanted to show someone saying "This is what I think about the situation, this is what I think about people, this is what I think about women".
Vladimir: I think there are a few reasons why we made this show. Firstly, we just followed our hunch. It's the main point of our company: discover new names and return neglected names. For Britain, Lermontov is not so famous, so of course we were really proud to introduce him to a wide audience.
And then, well, usually a classic is not so dangerous. We can respect the classic; people always say "It's so deep", even if they have no idea what it's about. But in this case, because the main character is so unusual, even for Russian literature, it's difficult to find a frame for him. And this contradictory character I think is quite interesting.
I've heard people compare A Hero of Our Time to Hamilton - that they're both historical and modern at the same time. Is that accurate?
Vladimir: I haven't seen it, actually.
Oliver: I haven't seen it either.
Vladimir: I don't think we can compare our financial situation, but if they put us on the same level, it's a glimmer of hope - finally, we'll make some money! It's a good option, maybe, for people who want to see Hamilton.
Oliver: I suppose the sort of respect and disrespect for the classics is a good thing. We always think the past is slow, but the past is really fast. We don't need theatre to be slow - audiences' brains work really fast, so theatre has to be even faster.
Vladimir: The classic, high-level literature is always modern and fast.
Oliver: If you read the text again now, it reads faster and stronger and more modern than most modern novels.
Do you have any future plans for this show?
Oliver: I think our one-year anniversary is exactly today, right?
Vladimir: Yeah, yeah, today!
Oliver: Well, we're going to Russia on Saturday.
Vladimir: We've performed it in Edinburgh, at the Arcola, and now it's like a new step for this show. We were invited by this quite famous Soviet/Russian director Adolf Shapiro, who's now the artistic director of the Chekhov Festival, the biggest theatre festival in Russia. We are very excited to introduce Lermontov to Russia!
Then, at the beginning of June, we are going to Cologne, Germany. It's like a new level, a new step for this show, and we are really proud.
And you guys have another project in the works, right?
Oliver: We did one preview of a new show, a collaboration with another company, Stage RC, of a play about the Salisbury Novichok attack last year called To See Salisbury.
Vladimir: We're working with a text by Victor Shenderovich, who is a famous Russian TV presenter. He used to host this sort of Muppet Show-type programme, a political satire. Now he's kind of banned in Russia, so he's here.
When we saw the script, we were surprised that no one had written a play about it already. It seems like in Britain, every second person is a playwright. What [Shenderovich] did is really funny - he made a connection with Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which is also about two people who are sent to kill someone.
Oliver: It's imaginative!
Vladimir: It starts from this Russian-British conflict, this adventure, let's say, but finally it turns to identity and fake news, which is a problem in all countries. In Russia, in Britain, you can't understand what is true and what is a lie.
Oliver: Even the people in the situation don't know the truth. Even the people who are doing the crimes don't know what they're doing or why they're doing it. Even their bosses don't know. That's sort of the conceit of the show.
Vladimir: It was a really interesting experience for me because, as I mentioned, this is a co-production with Stage RC, who work usually with Russian theatre in London. So we decided to create two shows: one in Russian and one in English.
Oliver: The Russian version is actually going around America in a few weeks, and then the English version we're doing at my old school, RADA, at their main theatre, from 27 June to 6 July.
But we have also have a new project that we're really excited about! Our company is about this cultural exchange between England and the rest of Europe, so we want to do something about London life. Just by circumstance we happened upon this text - it found us, basically - which is the real life experiences of an ambulance driver in East London.
We completely fell in love with this text. Really interesting episodes, vignettes about life in London. We're starting to make a theatrical version of this now. It shows life, health, disease, society, death through these people on the edge of society. What's that character in Greek mythology that's allowed to cross the river of death?
Vladimir: And, again, we're following our hunch. It's an interesting story, how this text found us. The author watched our show, A Hero, and found Oliver.
Oliver: I got this email months afterwards, and he said, "Can I send something to you? What's your home address?" and I was like "Yeah". And then then the next day the book was put through my mailbox.
Vladimir: It's a small, absolutely fantastic book. We would like to do this at Edinburgh.
You mean this year?
Vladimir: Yeah, can you imagine? It's such a beautiful story. An ambulance driver, they always meet other people.
Do you have any plans to bring that abroad as well?
Vladimir: Yeah yeah, I think that could be interesting! A few months ago, we just launched our department in Belarus, and we've had some requests from Berlin. All the people just love our ideas, and they said, "Can we just open the same theatre, with the same title, HUNCH Theatre?" and we said "Well, it's a good idea..."
INTERVIEW between Vladimir Shcherban and Sergei Elkin
Vladimir Shcherban, one of the founders of Belarus Free Theatre, a world renowned director who lives in London, announced the birth of a new international company – HUNCHtheatre. The first show of the new company is premiering at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Leaving the Belarus Free Theatre, founding a new company – all this you’ll find in his exclusive interview.
Vladimir, in 2005 you were one of the founders of Belarus Free Theatre. Your name is associated with nothing but the best that was produced by the theatre. Why have you left?
All I can say is that I left and henceforward I ask not to relate me with the BFT. Free Theatre is not the first theatre in my life, but this chapter of my life is finished. What’s more important and more interesting for me now is to concentrate on my new project.
What’s going to happen with your shows? Will they remain in the repertoire?
All my shows will be performed, but how often and whether they will be represented in festivals – that’s a question for the theatre. As far as I know my shows are performed in Minsk now. They were created in order to be performed.
I cannot imagine the actors of the main cast – Yana Rusakevich and Pavel Gorodnitskiy – without your shows.
And you should not imagine it. It was me who invited Yana Rusakevich, Anna Solomyanskaya, Pavel Gorodnitskiy, Denis Tarasenko and Oleg Sidorchik to the theatre. They became the “golden” cast of Belarus Free Theatre, who built up the reputation of the theatre during the first years of existence. But I worked with them prior to the Belarus Free Theatre, that’s why further collaboration is not excluded, but in a new way. Oleg lives and works in London. It’s not impossible that we will make a show together. For me theatre is not work, it’s not even my profession. Making a show for me is a necessity. The same as thinking or breathing. Theatre is where I am. That’s why the first show of the new company – HUNCHtheatre – we made right here, in this very room (Vladimir looks round his room). House theatre. Twelve people became our first viewers. One of them was a dissident and a famous writer Zinoviy Zinik.
You don’t translate the name of the theatre into Russian, do you?
It’s very difficult to find a Russian equivalent for the word “hunch”. I together with my artistic partner Oliver Bennett thought for a long time what to call ourselves. We applied to Edinburgh Fringe Festival with a technical name – “V & O” – “Vladimir and Oliver”. And suddenly I remembered how I and Oliver went to the presentation of the latest book by Peter Brook “Tip of the Tongue”. Brook is British. In his own time he immigrated to France and created his theatre there. In his book he tells in details about peculiarities of translation, about words which cannot be translated etc. One of them was hunch. How it is in Russian? Prenotion? Intuition? When you suddenly wake up and tell yourself “You have to do it this way”. Simply follow your animal instinct without any explanation. Each and every theatre in Britain is predictable, every one finds this, it develops and endlessly milks one topic. But we are unpredictable, we follow our hunch. We are HUNCHtheatre. Peter Brook’s book is close to me here, with his signature in it. We’ll treat it as the Master’s benediction.
How do you imagine your audience?
One of the first tours of Free Theatre was a tour to Riga. We performed at Alvis Hermanis New Riga Theatre and after the show met the director. He said it beautifully that you should make theatre for the audience that surrounds you. Our new theatre was born here in London. Our viewers are here and our first show was a response to public and social life in London.
Your new show is ‘A Hero Of Our Time’. I was surprised by the choice of literary material. Throughout all years of existence of Belarus Free Theatre you came across as an adherent of a direct statement, verbatim theatre, sharp and modern theatre. King Lear was an exception. And now out of the blue – the absolute classic, Mikhail Yuryevich Lermontov. Why?
To be fair I have to notice that my keen interest in modern playwriting started to develop long before Belarus Free Theatre. Two of the most radical texts (“Some explicit polaroids” and 4.48 Psychosis) were born inside the belly of National Theatre. It was “underground”, but it happened there – in Kupalovsky Theatre. A year before the creation of BFT. Shortly before an unofficial premiere of “Some explicit polaroids” we published the manifesto of an underground theatre, which was the reason for an enormous scandal at the level of Ministry of Culture. Also I made rehearsed readings of plays by Belarus number 1 playwright – Pavel Pryazhko there. concerning A Hero Of Our Time, it may sound surprisingly but it was Oliver Bennett’s idea. Of course we don’t stage the whole novel – we didn’t have either resources or opportunities. We perform the chapter “Princess Mary” which sounds really up-to-date and relevant to nowadays gender conflict that only the lazy would not discuss. That is a hunch – when you understand that you have to do it now and cannot explain. Our show is an unexpected point of view on a definite destroying power between the genders, where it’s not possible to know who is right and who is wrong. The novel “A Hero Of Our Time” was remarkable for me during my school time. I awoke thanks to it. Before it we were listening to our teachers mumbling something, we didn’t give a shit about it. In critical literature it was said (I remember till now) that Pechorin was a “cripple and moral monster”. I remember this hooked me. Somehow my soul was on his side. Suddenly I stood up and told the teacher that I didn’t agreed with her. I went to the library and found something outside our school program – Belinsky’s critical article. Do you imagine what was in my head?! Belinsky had an opposite point of view, which coincided with mine. Everything gained a new life for me. Unexpectedly I understood that literature was an issue to discuss. Of course, in Belarus it never crossed my mind that I would stage Lermontov in London in my room with British cast. An unbelievable turn of fate!
I can’t recall any staging of “A Hero…” apart from Efros’s telly show “Pages of Pechorin’s diary” where Mary was played by Irina Pechernokova, Pechorin by Oleg Dal, Grushnitskiy by Andrey Mironov.
I also can’t remember any shows apart from Efros’s one. But even if there were I wouldn’t watch them. I don’t like to watch the other’s shows prior to staging my own. I don’t want to fog my vision.
‘House theatre’ is wonderful, but there are certain things which can’t be made using whatever is available.
Of course. It was a necessity. I and Oliver knocked the doors of all the London theatres, talked to all artistic directors. It was our reaction to these sad circumstances. We need to perform. If there is no space – we’ll perform at home.
Let’s introduce your artistic troupe to the readers.
From the beginning HUNCHtheatre was conceived as an international company. I created it with a British actor and (since recently) playwright. We work together for 5 years already. A common friend brought him for an audition for my show “countableuncountable” at the Yard Theatre. It was a project independent from Belarus Free Theatre. Not long ago Yard Theatre received Peter Brook’s award for the best space. Oliver then played in my shows “Price of Money” and “Tomorrow I was always a lion” based on Arnhild Lauveng’s book. The last show with Belarus Free Theatre tells a story of a woman who recovered from schizophrenia.
The show received outstanding reviews. All the cast was British. Now unfortunately the show is not performed. In “A Hero Of Our Time” Oliver plays Pechorin. He performs wonderfully, absolutely not in tradition of Russian Theatre. We created an absolutely different Pechorin – modern, lively, recognizable. Grushnitsky was originally played by the marvellous Patrick Joshua – a young and very in demand actor. He performed along with Nicole Kidman in the West End, and now – in my room. Actress – Anastasiya Zinovieva was born in Belarus, studied in Moscow and now lives in London. She plays Mary. Our designer Alexis Garsia lives in Columbia, sends us the drafts of the set. All these people are unique and talented. They immediately responded to my idea and worked hard. Everyone put their hearts into this project.
We all worked without any payment, and it’s close to impossible to do anything in London without money. Everyone looks for money. I think the show will be interesting first of all to those who know the novel and are accustomed to classical interpretation. We made a different, British and very ironic show. In fact a tragicomedy. According to Edinburgh festival conditions you can perform up to 6 times without any reviews. So everything we had beforehand is called a preview. The official premiere will be in August at Edinburgh Fringe at Fringe First Program. The venue is well-known, right in the city centre.
Edinburgh will be soon enough, what’s next? Could you share your plans for future?
The whole of last summer we worked on and are still working on the show about life and death of a great Soviet director, Vsevolod Meyerhold.
We weren’t bounded by any kind of contracts, we just gathered together and worked. As a result we produced a script which will be our next project. Meyerhold is a particularly interesting figure in the history of culture. Little is known not only about himself, but also about his wife, Zinaida Reich, apart from the fact that she was the main actress at his theatre and she was killed in her own flat after her husband’s arrest. She was stabbed 17 times. Iconic figures, symbols of revolution. There is no even a single work about their lives either in Russia or in the west. In our work we want to make parallels with our reality. And more – if we talk about British reality – it is our response to middle class who is bewitched by the idea of revolution. Revolution is the best selling word in British theatre. They don’t have any idea how much blood is behind this word. I am so eager to show them an example of revolution in art and revolution in life. Very often those two contradict each other. We collected huge amounts of information. Hopefully by the end of the year we’ll have a show with the Arcola – one of the best theatres here in London. After the run of my show “Yesterday I was always a lion” there in Arcola an artistic director approached me and said “I want you to stage something”. This is a unique case for London bearing in mind that everyone has everything planned long beforehand.
Do you position HunchTheatre as a bilingual theatre?
I do no want to be limited by language barriers, we are an international company. We perform “A hero” in English, but there were lots of Russian speaking spectators at previews. Our bilingualism is our peculiarity. We’ll see how we can use this language mixture. We plan to adapt Kafka’s short story “The Judgment”. Zinoviy Zinik recommended it. I was shocked by this story. It seems that it predicts everything that will happen to Check Republic and about events in Russia and the Ukraine. I think about doing the show with Oliver Bennett and Oleg Sidorchik. As long as the aim of the theatre is to produce the work without any kind of barriers (bureaucratic, political and linguistic) – it demands a special means of artistic expression.
You live in London since January 2011. Has it become yours?
I love London. It’s not exactly Britain, it’s more a country within a country. London is very different. I can’t say it’s mine – you’ll need to live here 10 years or more, but I like it. I like to change boroughs, it’s interesting to dive into different cultural layers. A new period of my life has just started now – new theatre in London. I want everything to succeed.
I want you so much to prove to yourself and the others that it’s possible. Brexit is not a great helper.
Right. Britain is in confusion now. Of course, it’s a step back, may be lots of steps back. I think Brexit will come back to bite everyone later. Our theatre is a special response to Brexit. The art world has to stand against it. What kind of division is possible in culture! However, today even in the theatre world they say that European directing is spoiling British theatre. It’s surprising, but Michael Billington, Guardian arts critic, agreed with it.
It’s terrible that such things are said by a respectful reviewer. Fortunately, in Britain the situation is different from America. There is no such a hierarchy of reviewers. Ben Brantley from New York Times wrote something and that’s it. As someone in London said it was good to live in a country with one newspaper. It’s different in Britain. There is Billington’s opinion, and there are opinions of other theatre people. It is still accepted in London to compare a couple of points of views. Let’s see what happens. Now we actively look for resources and partners all over the world because we want to create a truly international movement. It’s important who will believe in you, who follows our hunch and without any explanation simply helps. For me it’s very indicative. Now I receive support from many different people and am endlessly grateful to them.
Do you follow theatre situation in Minsk?
For a year I was not on Facebook and when I returned I found out that lots of interesting talented people appeared in Minsk theatre. Thirteen years ago it was absolutely different! To a certain extent it’s my credit as well. Young critics appeared who perceive everything absolutely normally. Of course, it’s not a simple situation, but something changes and it’s wonderful.
One day in one interview you talked about relationship between actors and spectators as cat and mouse. Do you follow this game in your beginning?
Of course. All theatres fight for finance and this fight drives theatres into a trap. With our theatre we want to say – let’s try a different way. Perhaps this is an uncomfortable way, but it gives you the possibility to experiment and do things which you really want. It’s good to admire the revolution in the theatre and talk about house theatre, which by the way originated from 60-s Chechoslovakia. And today appears that in Britain in quite a “fat” country we have only one opportunity – to perform in a room at home. Unfortunately, British reality is in such a state that people of art have to pay for their art themselves.
Alas, it’s not only British, but American as well.
That’s why it’s not a coquetry – we really want to draw the attention towards this problem, to start discussion about endless barriers and traps that wait for artistic people. Let’s discuss it. It seems to me that Edinburgh is a wonderful place to start a new show and a new company. Our show is absolutely mobile. We want to give the opportunity to viewers to invite the show everywhere. If you want we can play it on your kitchen or on a stage of National Theatre. Part of our program is to bring high quality theatre to the most distant places. Recently we received an absolutely unexpected offer. The owner of a 5 star hotel invited us to use his basement where there is a small cinema and perform there for free. To get a free venue in Soho – it’s fantastic! Perhaps we’ll do some more previews there. Of course, we want to bring this show to Minsk, show it in Europe and America, probably we’ll get even to Chicago.
This will be wonderful as you are well known and loved in Chicago. You brought 3 different shows here at different times “Being Harold Pinter”, “Minsk-2011. A letter for Katy Acker” and “King Lear”. All the reviews were fantastic, all shows were performed in front of packed audience. Why not to continue the tradition?
With great pleasure! So far we have an invitation to perform our Lermontov in Arcola Theatre. I hope that Edinburgh festival – a huge theatre market place - will help us with the distribution of “A Hero Of Our Time” around the world. I am ready!