Voronezh! A place I had never heard of until this trip. A city of about a million people. A place that no Westerner has ever pronounced correctly, apparently. Even now as I write this, having just been been instructed how to say it by the experts, I struggle to get it right…
It’s a city covered in posters and banners for the festival that we are a part of. MISSING posters are everywhere, we can’t read them (yet) as they are obviously all in Russian. It’s not long before Ryen and I start trying to work out the letters, not just of the posters but menus, road signs and even TV news reels – it’s a challenge which dominates at least an hour a day, as we try to get to grips with the amazing Cyrillic alphabet. Our reading becomes a bit of an obsession, especially with Ryen who is far more confident with the pronunciation than I am!
The venue is a stunning 800-ish seater in the heart of the city, 15 minutes’ walk from our lovely hotel (which is decorated by some of the strangest taxidermy I have ever seen!).
After settling in, we decide to investigate the area. Russia is not at all as I expected, it’s very difficult to explain why… Voronezh feels a bit like a British town like Bath or Norwich, only it is much bigger, it has an epic grandeur, and stone buildings line wide open roads, the original wooden buildings flattened by the war (making way for solid soviet statements). There are no ‘shop fronts’ anywhere. Commerce is not the defining factor of the architecture here; it may feel old-fashioned but only perhaps to a Western mind used to city centres sculptured by NEXT and M&S… Finding a supermarket here is really hard work. Trying to find a bottle of water on one occasion, Georgina ends up in a pet shop!
Bars and cafes are easier to find. One restaurant we visit is called ‘Barack O’Mama’ and it serves American-style food. Another cafe we dive into, to avoid a torrential downpour, is decorated like Kings Cross train station! The bar beneath our hotel (with the most enthusiastic waitress ever) is called ‘Bar-Leskone’! There are surprises around every corner.
Voronezh, like Moscow features a number of impressive Orthodox Churches. Irina takes us to a new one – only 10-15 years old she tells us. I have a very complex relationship with religion of all kinds, but I am always excited to see new places of worship, I like the human activity. As Solene covers her head to be allowed in, we are told that a lot of the churches in Russia are quite new because religion was of course against the law until relatively recently; many churches were destroyed. Inside the building there is a sense of very deep, serious faith. There is a library silence in the large room. Religious figures whisper instructions of prayer and advice to the worshippers who circulate the room paying their respects to various iconic figures and areas of the building itself. I leave very quickly, I feel like a tourist in a private place. This is not the viewing gallery of the Sistine Chapel…this is more like walking into someone’s house. I leave and wait outside, I put my hand down onto a stone pillar only to find that it isn’t stone at all. Most of the building is made of MDF, plasterboard and even plastic, made up to look like stone. Having been to some of the oldest and most iconic buildings across Europe I find this prefab, knock-up church strange at first. But then I think, why not? It’s cheaper, it’s quicker and it does the job. It looks amazing and the people inside, the people it really matters to, clearly love it deeply. This is the first time on my trip to Russia where I come face-to-face with the idea of what we see being different to what is really going on. It won’t be my last.
Very few people speak english – our brilliant interpreter Sasha looks after us wherever possible. I find myself pointing and smiling a lot and it leads to quite a few mistakes when it comes to ordering food. Ordering a small tea leads to a pitcher of beer on the table. None of us mind at all, it encourages us to pick up a few phrases and it isn’t long before we are trying to say please and thank you, hello and goodbye, yes and no in terrible Russian accents. Our Russian friends laugh at us all the way. Our sound guru Nathan is the best at speaking the lingo – perhaps it’s because he’s good with sounds? Perhaps he is just making up words… I’m not sure. You can never be sure with Nathan.
The get-in goes well. The local crew are really responsive to our team, Laura and Mishi have a great stage crew and everything goes in ok. Next door we begin work on the show. Francois and Solene have only performed the show in Bogota and so it’s essential to make sure the company are ready; next thing we know, we are in a tech and preparing for the first show.
There is a feeling I get whenever I am in the theatre, especially when it is with a show like MISSING which I have been a part of for the best part of four years. The inside of the theatre is the same everywhere in the world. I could be in Russia, or China, or back in Ipswich; when the lights go out and the music starts, it feels like home. Voronezh is just the same. Once the set is in and the tech begins, I find new confidence. I know the show works – Amit and the company have worked their arses off on this show for ages. The crew know the show and they are freakishly smart. The producers of the venue have already decided they like the show. All I have to do is make sure it is up to Amit’s (intensely high) standards.
We tech right up until the final minute. My favourite moment is when we have an interpreter on stage with a mic receiving notes from our english crew. She has a mic so that she can be heard by the lighting technicians focusing our front of house lighting, but it leads to a brilliant piece of performance – the back and forth between these three was a show in itself. It’s amazing how much extra time language can add to problem solving. Everyone works with patience and determination though and we are set to go. The show is ready. We don’t have any idea how many people are coming. There is a rather ambiguous 4-day holiday about to begin in Russia (a day of Russia?!), we hear. No one really knows but it could have affected ticket sales.
As it turns out the enormous theatre (with a beautiful acoustic) was full. Our local team told us afterwards that because Voronezh only really has exciting work during the festival it is really well attended, almost as if many people only attend the theatre during the festival and not for the rest of the year. All the productions we were able to see played to full houses, a testament to the marketing and the culture perhaps. This is a seriously cool festival.
The show goes okay, I am very relieved. The audience love it: a 2-minute standing ovation with audience members climbing up onto the stage to deliver flowers at the end. The cast are happy, I am happy. Show two, notoriously a harder job, goes even better. The tech crew (who see the show the most) say it is one of the best they have seen for a long time – this makes me really proud.
To celebrate a few of us stay out late, chatting, digesting the week, relaxing properly for the first time. We are joined very late by Niko and Irina and the conversation quickly shifts to international matters. I have always been the person to ask the hard questions; it’s almost as if I was born to play devil’s advocate. I have no diplomacy, neither do I judge people for the actions of others. I just like to get to the bottom of things. The truth at the core of a person’s thought is always the most interesting place a person can be. It’s the same in the theatre. So I dive in with questions about Ukraine, homosexuality, oil, the USA, media manipulation, faith, the role of the man and a woman in modern society and everything that could possibly spin off from these rather controversial subjects. Niko and Irina answer everything, directly, intelligently, eloquently and with ease. Niko gives me books to read, Irina has a staggering confidence as she provides a totally new perspective of the way that the press and the West see Russia. She isn’t defensive, she isn’t aggressive; she doesn’t need to be. We are talking openly and it’s so refreshing we battle about everything, putting the world to rights; an English man, a Hungarian, an American and a Russian! We laugh and shout at each other until the sun comes up. Mishi in his infinite wisdom decides that it’s too late to say goodnight, so we say good morning and go to breakfast together… The new day has begun.
In short, I learn more about Russia in 5 hours than I did in 2 years of studying it in History. I learn more about our new friends in one night than I would learn about someone in the UK in a year! I was really starting to enjoy Russia.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not even close to being converted to the Russian way of seeing the world – I don’t believe everything I was being told, not by a long shot… But I do believe that the people talking to me believed what they were saying. I have definitely seen international issues, particularly political relationships, in a different light. Ukraine was hardly ever on the news in Russia. There was no BBC world service on my TV, no CNN. The images we see of President Putin glaring at the Queen are nowhere to be seen.
Later in an amazing exhibition I attended featuring defiant work throughout the 20th century I was reminded, “The power of the printed word in Soviet Russia was absolute. Orders to the masses were delivered by print. The people developed a relationship with print, leading to distrust, fear and disrespect …” Perhaps this history with the press has left the Russian people, those I met at least, skeptical about about how the press see their world…
With all that chat out the way we head to a tiny, half-built airport and board a little plane. Next stop MOSCOW!!