We’ve just been in St Petersburg for the 2011 Europe Theatre Prize. I was chairing the events celebrating the prize being given to Katie Mitchell.
It isn’t the city I thought it would be. I imagined somewhere boldly breaking out of the Soviet era. I imagined a city of palaces and cathedrals. I imagined romance and snow. It is all of those things but the overwhelming impression I got was of a dirty, tired city. The snows have just melted and left behind them the revealed grime of the winter. The cars make a teeth-grittingly gritty sound as grind along the dirty roads. The journey from the airport was bizarre. You are used to arriving at a foreign city in the industrial zone; but this industrial zone just kept going. It was like arriving in London on the Eurostar and never leaving Kings Cross.
The Neva is the river that flows through St Petersburg. In fact, it would be more truthful to say that St Petersburg is the city that flows around the river. The river is so broad that at its main crossing point is feels more like a sea. Crossing that bridge was an epiphanic moment where I understood something about Russia. The brute force needed to throw a bridge over a sea felt like an image of the near-impossibility of organising this great wilderness of a country. The iron sides with their alternating images of stars and wheatsheaves were both proud and utopian, an image of battle between hope and earth, politics and physics. We criticise Soviet communism, rightly, but who has run the country differently? Peter the Great tearing beards off people’s faces: there’s a continuity with Vladimir Putin posing bare-chested with a rifle and Krushchev banging a table with his shoe. It’s a country that seems to demand wild gestures of impossible mastery.
The Soviet era is still in evidence - most notably through a large and wonderfully vigorous statue of Lenin that we saw on the way to and from the airport. I wondered how it survived the cull; some of the most vivid memories I have of the Soviet era being dismantled is the ritual pulling down of the statues. There are huge mausoleum-like apartment blocks that I suppose are communist-era. Also, by the Nevsky Prospect station on Saturday afternoon we saw a group of campaigners with red flags and, alarmingly, posters of Stalin. They weren’t receiving much attention, but this is a country that quite recently voted Stalin the greatest (or was it second greatest?) Russian of all time.
I have to declare, of course, that my initial impressions, the dirt, the grime, were much modified by further investigations towards the west of the city. Walking down the main artery of the city, the Nevsky Prospekt (pictured), you come to beautiful mansions blocks, busy shopping parades, statues and gardens and finally The Hermitage.
The Hermitage is a whole body experience. First, it’s huge. Bigger than huge. It’s maybe the biggest building I’ve ever been in. You can get lost in it, literally, metaphorically. Every room is sumptuous, a work of art in itself. Sometimes, I would suggest, a bad, gaudy work of art, sometimes a bright, beautiful, visionary one. And each room is filled with art. I suppose I have a rather modernist sensibility, so while I admired the Flemish and Dutch masters (that we raced by), it was the second floor (which they call the third floor) where I found myself hyperventilating on art. Each room in the impressionist and post-impressionist section is filled with masterpieces, many of them you’ve seen hundreds of times in reproduction, and here they actually are. It’s quite something to walk into a room and find yourself looking at four Van Goghs in a row, to walk into another room and discover it’s full of Matisses, exquisite Matisses, the best Matisses you’ve seen, and that the next room is full of even more Matisses, ever better ones. The big discovery, though, was Andre Derain, a painter I’d seen work by but never so much together; he seems a painter of unusual energy and power. We spent a ridiculously short time in The Hermitage, but what would be an adequate amount of time to put aside to explore the museum? A week? A month?
The Metro is a highlight, of course it is. The escalator takes you down, immensely far, so far that at the top of the escalator, you can’t see the bottom. And the stations are marble and stone, with chandeliers, just as promised. The trains are regular and efficient, and the passageways and platforms are very clean. St Petersburgers seemed to be urgent metro-travellers (though very slow walkers, I found) but good-humoured and patient. And tremendous readers; one thing that will strike anyone about St Petersburg is that the city is devoted to its writers. Pushkin is remembered everywhere. Dostoevsky’s name dominates one quarter of the city. Their characters name streets, bars, shops and buildings. Books are everywhere; the Metro was full of readers.
As to the event itself. It was an honour to help honour Katie Mitchell, whose work I am always thrilled to see, even when perhaps I don’t like the choices made. It’s so rare to find someone working so seriously, so finely. As I said in the platform interview I did with her, the Situationists had the idea of publishing a book covered in sandpaper so that as it went on and off the shelf, it would slowly destroy the other books around it. I find Katie’s productions like that; their integrity, their fineness, their truthfulness have a scouring effect on the other productions around them: her work reveals the staginess, the short cuts, the lack of ambition of almost everything else.