Akhe Engineering Theatre
Donald Hutera previews Russian underground performance troupe Akhe Engineering Theatre's production, 'Plug'n'Play', coming to London's Shunt Vaults in January
It’s early November at the Unidram Festival in Potsdam, and 400 sweaty bodies are crammed up against barriers fronting a raised stage. The raucous, ravenous crowd is about to see Russia’s Akhe Engineering Theatre plunge into a 50-minute piece of orchestrated chaos called ‘Plug’n’Play’. But first they’re issued a string of permissions.
‘Do not switch off mobiles,’ the performer-designer Maxim Isaev advises in passable English. ‘Do not stop speaking. And if someone wants to take photo, it’s okay. As the Dalai Lama has said, we have only one day in our life to be happy – right here and right now – because all of us die.’ How thoughtful to be reminded of our mortality. And, equally, how good of Isaev and his mates – company co-director Pavel Semchenko and the cuddly musician Andrey Sizintsev – to deliver an immediate, anarchic show with the potential to blast an audience’s subconscious fears and collective anxieties to bits.
Founded in St Petersburg in 1989, with its headquarters in a former Communist youth centre of Vasilevsky Island, Akhe (a meaningless name, pronounced ‘ak-ye’) is a mainstay of Russia’s vestigial theatrical underground. The core company consists of a handful of multidisciplinary artists whose messy, magical and vital work places Akhe in the tradition of the Russian avant-garde. Early performances occurred on the street, in gardens and parks, factories and apartment stairwells.
‘These were not theatre pieces,’ explains Vadim Gololobov, Akhe’s resident lighting designer and, in effect, manager. ‘They were actions. What we did for street theatre was close to new drama.’ Akhe’s productions are best seen rather than heard. As the company matured it has occasionally aligned itself with mainstream institutions like the Alexandrinsky and Mariinsky theatres, yet withoutsacrificing its edgy, maverick status. ‘For me we’re a very clear example of an alternative,’ Isaev says, adding, ‘but I don’t know to what.’
Joseph Seelig, co-director of the London International Mime Festival, dubs Akhe ‘bold, brave and bonkers. They live dangerously onstage.’ He should know, having presented the group twice before. A five-star marvel called ‘White Cabin’ arrived in 2004 trailing awards via the Edinburgh Fringe. The next year Akhe returned to London in the men-only ‘Mister Carmen,’ a drily witty, free-form take on Prosper Merimee’s infamous cigarette girl. Now the company is back in the festival with two shows. ‘Plug’n’Play’ will be unleashed in the Shunt Vaults mid-January, followed by a loose adaptation of Goethe (and others) called ‘Faust.2360 Words’ at the ICA.
The former, as seen in Potsdam, is a scrappy, liberating chunk of absurdist madness made in response to the rise of Russia’s club culture. Isaev and Semchenko, a dead-pan pair of bearded fortysomethings, resemble clownish, overgrown schoolboys in tight black jackets and loose-legged, orange short pants. If they are clowns, Beckett and Magritte are definitely a
part of their lineage. Set to a mélange of jazz, electro-pop and kitsch music, theirs is not a performance that observes the niceties of health and safety. When the two men embrace their sleeves deliberately catch on fire. A bag of porridge is exploded. Books are used as chopping boards. Standing on a stool, Isaev drops his shorts and furiously slices at a rectangle of salt fat dangling between his legs.
‘Plug’n’Play’ is a show you can smell, eat and throw things at. The audience targets light bulbs with slingshots. We’re encouraged to hurl back at the stage the oranges lobbed at us, even if it means hitting the huge backdrop Isaev and Semchenko take turns painting. This piece of visual art is auctioned off at the end of the evening (and in Potsdam for a bargain
€30). The performance itself is a living art object, and a prime example of how far Semchenko claims Akhe is willing to go in the name of art. ‘To the bone,’ he says, and you believe him.
‘Plug’n’Play’ (Shunt Vaults, Jan 14-15) and ‘Faust.2360 Words’ (ICA, Jan 17-21). www.mimefest.co.uk
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