The Little Tragedies

BATS Theatre, Wellington

23/09/2008 - 04/10/2008

Production Details

Human Obsession, Rivalry and Death . . . by the Master! 

The New Zealand premiere of The Little Tragedies, a modern poetic interpretation of Alexander Pushkin’s nineteenth-century Russian masterpiece about free will, fate, and the human obsessions that continues to haunt us two hundred years after the four "little tragedies" were first penned.

Encompassing themes of vice and virtue, money and rivalry, love and death, Pushkin’s poetry has long been considered particularly difficult to approach in translation. This production is designed to bring Pushkin’s genius to a non-Russian speaking audience and uses the acclaimed English translation by Nancy Anderson.

We are very proud and honoured to welcome premiere Russian theatre director Slava Stepnov to New Zealand. Stepnov has worked in theatres throughout Russia, Georgia, Peru, United States and in 1997 Stepnov moved to New York City and founded the STEPS Theatre Production Company.

American critics have called Stepnov’s style "movie-esque" and one of his productions a "unique directorial gem". Russian critics referred to him as a "genuine artistic whose choices in a process of searching for forms and expressions are always surprising", and concluded that Stepnov "might find himself in the company of such masters as Barishnikov, Nuriev and Brodsky".

Theatre of Glorious Abandon and STEPS Theatre offer their own version of Pushkin’s lyrical drama, exploring it by means of live music, drama, and dance. This production marks the New Zealand premiere of The Little Tragedies and offers a rare chance to experience the depth and peculiarity of classic Russian poetry.

23 Sept – 4 Oct, 9.30pm
BATS Theatre, 1 Kent Tce
Bookings: 802 4175 or Cost: $18/12

Gene Alexander, Antonia Bale, Matt Clayton, Phil Darkins, Sarah Lineham, Phil Peleton and Paul Stephanus

Rich and energetic production

Review by Mary Anne Bourke 26th Sep 2008

This is a rare treat: three punchy short dramas of avarice, lust and jealousy by the grandfather of Russian literature – in the New Zealand premiere – directed by visiting Stanislavsky specialist, Slava Stepnov.

Pushkin knew what he was talking about with extremes of human passion – if you’ll remember, he’s the nineteenth century writer who died in a duel with a rival for his wife’s affections in a repeat of a scene that occurs in his prose masterpiece ‘Eugene Onegin’. Those were the days – but I digress. Though Pushkin has appropriated narrative gems from legend for these stories, he has infused them with flights of his brutal and lyrical poetry that carry us to the heart of drama.

Stepnov’s rich and energetic production does these plays proud. From the moment the players come on in silhouette like troubadours from the dark ages playing a primitive folk beat (evocative music composed by James Dunlop), their origin in ancient forms is established, making a clear space for Nancy K Anderson’s muscular new translation to find its resonance with us today.

‘The Miserly Knight’ shows a rejected son (Phil Peleton in punk leather and chains) work himself up to a pitch of murderous frustration. We soon see what’s eating him: mean old dad (Phil Darkins) will do anything to keep his pots of gold out of his son’s reach, even to defaming him at court. The thrill of this piece is that with intriguingly fresh mythic metaphors (a young man makes his money work, an old man lets it rest in peace), the kind of filial and parental anguish of both Hamlet and Lear is expressed, but from a different angle.

‘The Stone Guest’ tells of famous Spanish lothario Don Juan’s return to seduce a widow whose husband he has grievously dispatched, though not without taking time for another romantic conquest on the way. Here, Stepnov protégé Gene Alexander proves himself every bit the leading man. Got up as a leather-clad beatnik and speaking in an intense husky whisper, he gives the role a visceral sincerity that makes the compulsion ‘the Don’ calls Love as real as can be. Alexander’s performance is a tribute to Stepnov’s method and a must-see.

Musical interludes enliven all three pieces but, needless to say, none as exquisitely as in the third, ‘Mozart and Salieri’ where the latter’s dark obsession with the former’s talent is exacerbated by snatches of the music. (Yup, Peter Shaffer’s play and screenplay for Amadeus was inspired by Pushkin’s piece). Paul Stephanus comes into his own here as the blithe young composer while Phil Darkins nicely underplays the pathology of his nemesis – the third of three roles in which Darkins delivers soliloquies to intelligent dramatic effect. A sublime choral rendition of Mozart’s Requiem brings the trilogy to an ecstatic finale.

You could say this production seems particularly well cast – and they all deserve a mention: the voice of Sarah Lineham is a standout, Matt Clayton is delightful as a ubiquitous peasant, Antonia Bale looks to have been born for the part of the widow Donna Anna – but that would be to overlook the work Stepnov has done to bring them to this pitch. Okay, at first, I thought the Swiss ball boulders tended to inhibit movement, but as things went on, I could see how useful they are as a physical restraint that allows the poetry to come through as clearly as possible, and helps, by contrast, to accentuate the verve of the action sequences.

I came out of this show thinking – and saying – "Wow… Good ON them." Anyone who appreciates a well-told tale should see it.  That’s all of yas!


Mary Anne Bourke October 1st, 2008

oops. Giant error of mine to say ‘Eugene Onegin’ was 'prose'; it was written as a novel in verse (400 stanzas of iambic tetrameter, I now learn). I'd only seen the film. Sorry, Steve, hope my faux pas doesn’t detract from the show.

Steve Evans September 27th, 2008

Pushkin knew what he was talking about with extremes of human passion - if you'll remember, he's the nineteenth century writer who died in a duel with a rival for his wife's affections in a repeat of a scene that occurs in his prose masterpiece 'Eugene Onegin'.

All these words are true except one, and that one is a giant that ruins this review.


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Modern, lyrical and timeless

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 26th Sep 2008

At Bats The Theatre of Glorious Abandon is back after its puzzling Dostoevsky’s Trip earlier in the year with the NZ premier of Pushkin’s rarely performed The Little Tragedies which is made up of four short verse plays written in 1830. We are presented with three of the four of these chamber pieces which are similar to medieval morality plays. A Feast during the Plague has been omitted.

The Miserly Knight is about avarice, The Stone Guest is a version of Don Juan’s final conquest of Dona Anna, and Mozart & Salieri is about envy and was instrumental in perpetuating the myth that Salieri poisoned Mozart and it tells in about twenty minutes what it took Peter Shaffer two and a half hours in Amadeus. Each story ends with a death.

One wonders if Pushkin had not been the author whether these playlets would still be performed but what matters here is that Slava Stepnov, a Russian director now working with STEPS Theatre in New York , has created a startling production that is modern, lyrical, and timeless. The final moments of Don Juan with the Statue are staged with true operatic flair.

He has also drawn from his actors exciting, expansive performances: Gene Alexander has the all necessary dash and sex appeal for Don Juan, though his seductive Spanish accent seems odd when no one else has one; Matt Clayton doubles as a reluctant Jewish money-lender and a long-suffering Leporello; Sarah Lineman lights up the stage with her singing; Paul Stephanus is a highly plausible Mozart, and Phil Darkins is superb as the envious Salieri. Phil Peleton and Antonia Bale also shine in supporting roles.

The Little Tragedies is a real rarity but well worth a visit.

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