Last night, Mrs. Tragos and I joined two good friends of ours to see the Maly Drama Theater of St. Petersburg give a performance in Russian of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. Peter Brook once said that the Maly Theater was “the finest ensemble theatre in Europe.”
It was an odd experience watching live theater with subtitles. I don’t speak a word of Russian, so I was constantly attempting to mesh the words on the screen, the gesticulations and physical movements of the actors, the incomprehensible (to me) music of the Russian language, and the dramatic action of the play itself.
I noticed that the cultural and linguistic estrangement allowed for insights I normally deny myself. My attention rarely veered from the actor’s movements. It was as if I were a young kid focused on my parents’ faces as they argued, attempting to discern hidden meanings in a sigh or furrowed brow.
In the end, I can say the melancholy of that estrangement reinforced the desolate misery of Chekhov’s self-damned protagonists. But in a way that felt…well, cathartic. Or maybe it was just the complacency of the unimaginative present-tense that makes engaged spectatorship so fleeting and elusive.