- Independent Journalism From Today's Armenia
March 5, 2004

Modern History: Classic play receives a racy new interpretation

On the stage of Yerevan Theatre half naked actors are performing a play from a time when convention did not allow women to show even the ankle.

They are presenting a new interpretation of one of the classics of Russian literature, Alexander Griboyedov's Misfortune from Intelligence. The play has a special connection to Armenia because the author saw it staged for the first and last time in Yerevan in 1827, when it was acted by officers of the Russian garrison.

Old characters of Griboyedov in a new way.

Director Alexander Grigoryan says he has dreamed of staging the work for a long time, but “they were not the right times and the play would not have been a success”.

A similar staging of Misfortune from Intelligence took place at Yerevan ' Stanislavski Theatre six years ago, “however, it shocked the audience,” says Fred Davtyan, director of the theatre.

Misfortune from Intelligence in its classical reading is the protest in the character of Tchatski, the ironical satirist who is the main hero of the play, against Russia 's society of servants wallowing in hypocrisy.

From its very first minutes, the play surprises the audience who are familiar with it since their schooldays. The main heroine Sofya, a 17-year-old girl, appears on stage wearing a half transparent white peignoir after a first night spent with a man.

According to Griboyedov, Sofya and Molchalin, secretary of the anti-reform character Famousov, were playing music all night. But Grigoryan is certain that the young man and the young woman were making love.

The director says that the purpose of his staging is to provide a new comprehension of the play from today's perspective. The c haracters, their behavior and costumes are open to free reconsideration.

Throughout the play, Sofya performs erotic dances in bright and open dresses. Tchatski, wearing jeans, performs somersaults or runs around the stage holding Sofya in his arms. At the end of the play he goes mad and commits suicide, unlike in the original text where the main character is less eccentric and simply leaves at the end.

Among the variety of costumes presented, the most memorable are the young high society ladies in miniskirts that hardly cover their lacy underwear.

Molchalin's fawning behaviour marks him out as a typical character of the servants' society, the prototype of today's middle manager. He appears on the stage in red and white striped stockings fitting tight to his crotch.

For the audience, the most surprising character in the production is Repetilov – a collector and distributor of gossip in high society. He is presented unexpectedly as a homosexual. Wearing a Turkish hat, Armenian boots, pink stockings, a bright yellow jacket all laces and ruches he shocks the audience with extravagancy and ardency.

Colonel Skalozub, a mature bemedalled soldier, looks especially grotesque in camouflage with an aiguillette on his shoulder, a groundsheet and helmet from World War Two, fabric boots and a sabre hanging across him.

To underline the servile nature of the characters, the director makes Famousov, Sofya's father, wash Skalozub's feet in a basin, trying to please him in any way.

The director and the actors say the only thing that matters to them about this new presentation of Griboyedov's play is perception of the audience.

The reaction of teenagers in the theatre was pretty loud, the rumble of youngsters growing even louder during more open scenes, when for instance Famousov starts touching his maid flirtaciously.

Oksana Ovanesova, 43, a teacher of mathematics in Yerevan 's school number 25, brought her ninth form students, aged 14, to see the production. She thought it was too modern and open.

“If I had known what would take place on the stage I wouldn't have brought my students,” she says.

Ani Safaryan, 14, from Armavir, ninth form pupil, liked the play very much, especially Tchatski whom she admired as “ a cool guy”.

Nineteenth century high society ladies were quite different from the ones on the stage.

Matevos Martirosyan, 44, an unemployed lawyer, considered that the actors played very well, adding: “Grigoryan's interpretation fully corresponds to these days.”

Theatre critic Margarita Yakhontova says Grigoryan's staging is a courageous and extraordinary interpretation of the play.

“Because of director's innovations the intrigue of the play becomes more sharp. On the whole, it sounds like a bright play for youth,” she says.

“Classics are eternal and always attractive for audiences, but the bravery of the reading has to be justified by the quality and conviction of the performance.”

Griboyedov completed the play in 1823 and first presented it for publication in St Petersburg , where the censor rejected it. Although private copies circulated, the first edition only appeared in 1833, four years after his death.

The playwright met a gruesome death. Sent to Persia as a minister plenipotentiary, he was among Russians trapped in the Russian embassy when violent demonstrations broke out in Tehran against some Georgian and Armenian prisoners.

The embassy was stormed and he was killed on February 11, 1829 , his body so badly abused by the mob for three days that he was recognizable only by a dueling scar on his hand. Griboyedov's body was taken to Tbilisi , Georgia , and buried in the monastery of St David, where a monument to him was erected by his widow.

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