'Octavia. Trepanation'. 10 facts about the Stanislavsky Electro Theatre’s new performance
mos.ru | 26 October 2019Original

Watching a new production by Boris Yukhananov to get to the bottom of it.

'Octavia. Trepanation' is a play about the nature of violence and tyranny, which is one and the same at all times and epochs. The early USSR, Ancient Rome and the Chinese Empire coexist on the same stage. Leon Trotsky makes monologues about Lenin, Nero is tormented by the thirst for murder, terracotta warriors keep silent.

The next shows of the opera, which premiered at the Territory festival, are not expected until the next February. This mos.ru article is for those who have not seen 'Octavia', but heard a lot about it.


World premiere in Amsterdam

The performance was timed to the centenary of the October Revolution. The world premiere took place at the Holland Festival in Amsterdam on 15 June 2017. 'Octavia. Trepanation' was the first collaboration experience between the Russian theatre and the festival since 1947.

'Octavia' was staged at Muziekgebouw, Europe's major contemporary academic music venue. Its huge space accommodated an 8m Lenin’s head, and a choir of 80 singers in front of it, in suits of decapitated terracotta warriors, copied from ancient Chinese clay statues. The open frontal lobe of the working class hero's head housed another small choir of 8 people.

Boris Yukhananov staged his first version of 'Octavia' as early as 1989 in an assembly hall of one of the Moscow utility service offices. Now it is a different story.


Moscow production

The Russian premiere of the play took place within the international Territory Festival and School, which started on 9 October. 'Octavia. Trepanation' was the first opera to be included in the festival's program.

The main stage of the Stanislavsky Electro Theatre is smaller than that of Muziekgebouw, and this had to be taken into account in the scenic solution. In the Moscow version, only the chief characters sing — Nero, Seneca, the prefect, as well as Agrippina and a chorus of caryatids, listening to Octavia's plight, who was killed by the Roman dictator.



The libretto is based on an essay Leon Trotsky wrote about Vladimir Lenin in 1924 after the leader's death, around the same time that Lenin's skull was trepanned. Excerpts that sound enthusiastically from the stage tell about the days when the world just began to learn about Lenin, memories of meeting Vladimir, and his death. Sad news caught Trotsky on his way to Sukhumi.

The second text the libretto is based on is 'Octavia', attributed to the stoic philosopher Seneca. The tragedy, written in the 1st century AD, is dedicated to the life of Seneca's pupil Nero. The Emperor divorces his first wife Claudia Octavia and marries mercenary Poppaea Sabina. Seneca persuades Nero not to harm Octavia, but he does not listen to him. Claudia Octavia was accused of debauchery and executed, with her bloody head sent to the Emperor's new wife.

Today, many scholars believe that Seneca could not write a tragedy criticising the power and the Emperor. Moreover, they believe that 'Octavia' was written after his death. Disputes about its authorship still continue.


Music by Dmitry Kurlyandsky

Composer Dmitry Kurlyandsky is one of the key figures of the Stanislavsky Electro Theatre. He composed music for the plays 'Blue Bird', 'Psychosis', 'Parasomnias', 'The Orphic Games: Punk Macramé’, 'The Golden Ass', 'Sverliytsy' opera series and others. He used the revolutionary 'Varshavyanka' song in the opera 'Octavia. Trepanation', with the first bars of the song slowed down and looped. This piece keeps playing throughout the performance, creating a gloomy atmosphere of total control.

'Each author composes not just an opera, but shows what music is. The history of opera is a history of reforms, where every new turn is a denial of what we call an opera,' says Dmitry Kurlyandsky.


Lenin's giant head

The basic element of the scenography is the giant Lenin's head in a laurel crown the ancient Roman emperors used to wear. Astonished, spectators watch the head dissected with a laser, and the action begins. There is a small stage inside the skull. We hear the voices of Seneca, Nero, Octavius choir, and Leon Trotsky.

The idea to create this head belongs to scenic designer Stepan Lukyanov. He gave the finished sketches to the engineers who designed the frame, a 3D model of the head, and cast it from fiberglass. It is stuffed with a variety of mechanisms and engines to open the skull, exposing the scene, and make other tricks. In the final part, an inflatable Buddha figure seems to sprout through the head of the world proletariat's leader.



Chief Theatre Artist Anastasia Nefyodova is in charge of the costumes. Nero and Seneca are dressed in traditional Roman clothes. To design the costumes of the Red Army soldiers, who almost never leave the stage, she studied the drawings of the 1920s. 'It was very funny to discover that Trotsky's guards were dressed in red from head to toe. They wore red leather suits. I was surprised because I had already drawn them like this before I read it. This is an amazing coincidence,' she says.

Boris Yukhananov inspired Nefyodova to draw the image of a wounded bird for Octavia, who became a victim of her tyrant husband. Female choir is also represented as birds with bloody wings. The wings are made of feather-like synthetic organza, with complex gradient from red to white. Headdresses shaped as capitals of antique columns contort women's heads, as if cutting off their tops. Trepanation is a symbol of submission to the will of others.


Terracotta warriors

In the Moscow version of the play, terracotta warriors do not sing, but create a third image of tyranny, referring the viewer to the Chinese Empire. Emperor Qin Shi Huang, who united China and connected all the links of the Great Wall, in 210–209 BC ordered all his numerous army to be buried with him after his death. The tyrant was obeyed, but not quite literally: instead of living people, clay copies went to the graves. Each copy was unique in expression, height, and build.

Anastasia Nefyodova made suits for terracotta warriors, too. She used American soft foamed plastic. The suits are relatively light, 8 kg each, and comfortable to wear. A person can have such a suit on for several hours, as inside it has small fans and perforations to allow air and sounds pass through. And if a soldier suddenly feels sick, he can throw a white handkerchief on the floor, as a sign that the actor must be taken off the stage.


Terracotta Army installation

There is a Terracotta Army installation in the Theatre lobby. It displays suits that would not fit on stage. They are made of the same material, but on closer inspection they look more like real sculptures. By the way, the height of such a warrior is 2.3 m. You can view them 11:00 am till 10:00 pm. You will be quite impressed to wander among these giants.


Chariot and bathtub

Another interesting scenic element is a chariot and bathtub drawn by sinister centaur skeletons. Trotsky is the first to ride it, with Nero following. In the end, Seneca bids farewell to his life in it. And it is a true fact, as the renowned philosopher was found dead in a hot tub.



Sergei Malinin performs Nero's part. Stanislavsky Electro Theatre's regulars know him well: he plays in both parts of 'Maniosis', 'Prose' and 'Sverliytsy'. Since 2012, he has been the lead soloist of N'Caged, a contemporary music band.

Alexei Kokhanov, a singer, performer and composer, the artist of the Dmitry Krymov Laboratory, plays Seneca. Electro Theatre guests saw him in 'Maniosis' and 'The Orphic Games'.

The only non-singing character is Leon Trotsky. The merited artist of Russia Yuri Duvanov, who since the 1970s has often acted in films ('Sunday Dad', 'Long Miles of War', 'Where Did the Song Canary Go?') performs a part of a revolutionary and a renowned political figure.