Sunday, February 19, 2012

To Silence: Kabir & Maria Chekhova by Subhash Jaireth

To Silence: Kabir & Maria Chekhova  by Subhash Jaireth.  Directors: Caroline Stacey (Kabir) & Camilla Blunden (Maria Chekhova) at The Street Theatre, February 16-26, 2012.

Kabir played by Raoul Craemer and Maria by Naoné Carrel.

For information about Subhash Jaireth go to:

Reviewed by Frank McKone
February 18

This presentation by The Street Theatre establishes the importance of the work of Artistic Director Caroline Stacey, and the role The Street plays within Canberra’s theatre life.  The news, published on the front page of The Canberra Times just yesterday ( that “Canberra’s professional theatre practitioners will have the city’s first custom designed rehearsal space when The Street Theatre’s new $3.18 million extension, a modern bright structure, is built” is confirmation of the support of the ACT Government and theatre community for Stacey’s efforts.

Following last year’s commissioning of Alana Valentine’s MP – a play based upon interviews with Members of Parliament and bureaucrats here in the Federal Capital city – this year has begun with a work by another successful published writer, nowadays resident in Canberra.  And, in the wake of the Canberra Multicultural Festival, if Jaireth represents anything it must be multiculturalism, writing as he does in Hindi, Russian and English.  Whatever some jaundiced sections of Australian society would like to believe, multiculturalism is alive and well and living in the centre of goverment.

However, the two historical characters we see presented by Jaireth are dead, though we see them as they approach their final silence.  The Indian mystic poet Kabir died in 1518.  Shakespearean in his poetry and significance in his society, it is fascinating to realise he died so long before Shakespeare’s own death in 1616.  Maria Chekhova was the keeper of her older brother’s spirit for the 53 years of war, revolution and dictatorship after Anton Chekhov’s death in 1904 until her own demise at the age of 94 in 1957.  We see her here on the day of the announcement of Josef Stalin’s death in 1953.

Based on extensive documentary evidence, Jaireth has written two separate monologues, each just an hour long, making a solid evening’s theatre with a 20 minute interval between.  It’s concentrated listening for the audience, but well worthwhile for the quality of the language, the story that develops in the life of each character, and the implications for our own lives today.  It is the continuity of human experience from 1500 to 1950 and beyond that we come to understand as Jabir and Maria speak their minds.

Both Craemer and Carrel speak their character’s mind with clarity and feeling.  Jaireth has given them the language they need for the storytelling, and both miss no opportunity offered them by the author.  But this production gives us a theatrical context for the storytelling which places each character emotionally in their world. 

For Maria, restricted in her wheelchair to the house in Yalta, with memories sometimes mixed up and fading, the set is a minimal representation of significant objects, like half-seen paintings on the wall, a blank high wall section which turns out to represent for her the dust-covered statue of Anton, while her writing desk is just as she might have used it in real life for her correspondence and telephone calls to Anton’s wife, the actress Olga Knipper.

Kabir, though, is a mystic poet, living in the past and the present alternately in his poems and memories of family, friends and social figures, such as the religious pundits he despises for their deliberate manipulation of ordinary people’s understanding of reality.  He, a weaver in real life, is caught in a net of feelings and experiences, sometimes inescably entwined, other times in control of the warp and the weft, sometimes fascinated by the artistry and beauty of his surroundings and his part in life.  Light and colour, even darkness, become elements in our experience as Craemer changes physically through Kabir’s feelings, criticisms and philosophical analyses at different ages and circumstances. 

The stage design and lighting – by Imogen Keen and Gillian Schwab respectively – work very well in both parts, but are more exciting, more integrated and poetically thematic in the Kabir piece than for Maria Chekhova.

And then there is the sound.  Seth Edwards-Ellis has, for both parts, created a subtle sound environment, which fills in the background space around us in the audience (though I wasn’t quite sure on my visit whether all the thunder in Kabir’s life was recorded or real, considering the great storm unfolding outside the theatre).  In both parts, the essence of the sound design was to establish something of the social, historical and emotional context, and then allow the sound to unobtrusively fade away until the point of silence was reached – in Kabir’s case with his death and ‘sky’ burial, and in Maria’s case with her horror at her failure to save Anton’s Jewish first love from the Treblinka concentration camp.  Silence fell as we understood she saved his house, his stories, his plays, his reputation, but was not brave enough to save Dunya from Hitler.  And in the silence we are left wondering if she had received Dunya at Yalta in the 1930s whether the other great dictator Stalin might not have been as bad.

The two parts together say, ironically, as the illiterate Kabir says when his son has his poems written down, goes to read them, and finds they are not the same: writing is not the best way to record the spoken word.  But Caroline Stacey and Camilla Blunden and their design team have shown that theatre can do the trick – so long as the writer is as good as Subhash Jaireth.