A scene from Masters: Gergana Zmiicharova (Milkana) and Ivan Yurukov (Naiden)
The National Theatre first 2017 premiere Masters by Racho Stoianov, directed by Petrinel Gotchev, was held at the Chamber Hall on 28 January. After celebrating early this year the 110th anniversary since the unveiling of the edifice of the theatre (3 January 1907), now the company with this premiere reminds of yet another emblematic anniversary: 90 years since the production of the first ever ‘masterly’[i] Bulgarian play staged at the theatre that brought into existence the ‘genuinely national drama’[ii], as enthusiastic reviewers observed at the time. That was the play Masters by Racho Stoianov, staged by Nikolay Massalitinov and premiered on 10 September 1927.
Presently, the premiere of Masters at the National Theatre is charged with symbolism for yet another reason. It is in fact the first play on the bill programmed by the National Theatre’s new Director, Marius Donkin, who took charge of the national institution in the beginning of this season following a long managerial crisis. He has already presented his managerial ideas, where Bulgarian plays, both contemporary interpretations of classical dramaturgy and new dramatic works are at the top of the priorities. From this vantage point, the choice of Masters is undoubtedly a significant nod to his plans, sparking a number of expectations.
Apart from the choice of this emblematic of the National Theatre (and of Bulgarian theatre for that matter) classical drama, the keen anticipation of the new staging has been bolstered also by the invitation to Petrinel Gotchev to stage the production. He has recently strikingly though unevenly demonstrated his inventive, strongly visual and plastic theatre in his productions of Romeo and Juliet and Joan of Arc’s Death at Gabrovo Theatre and A Respectable Wedding by Bertolt Brecht at Sofia Theatre. It was undoubtedly an ingenious and intriguing endeavour to assign the production of such a play with its intricate metaphorical and stylised characters as Masters to a director with a strong predilection for visual expression and starting his career as a woodcarver too.
Upon entering the Chamber Hall what a spectator sees is a platform in the middle turned into a special closed space encircled by a kind of a wooden garden bench or a joiner’s bench interrupted in two places by the stairways to the two entrances to the hall and another opening at the far end of the stage. This closed space is Master Naiden’s house (Ivan Yurukov) or rather, a room in his house, where he sketches designs of his woodcarvings and his apprentices work on the bench, chisels and burins in hand–– all this while spectators are taking their seats. Behind this clearly outlined and strongly protected private (inner) space and right opposite the rising tiers of seats, a big wooden scaffolding towers to mark the room of the craftsmen at the church and the construction of a new house, where the competition between Naiden and Zhivko will be held later, i.e. this is Naiden’s living space, the space of the small town of woodcarvers. It is external to him and his house/world, but at the same is familiar and intimate. Both spaces––of Naiden’s house and of the town––are made from the same material (sawn light wood boards), constantly and equally lit and the characters naturally cross the boundaries between them all the time. This is Naiden’s world, surrounded though by the bigger external world of the unknown and the remote. The latter is plunged into darkness (the dark hall seating the spectators). Two forbiddingly black tunnels lead to the clear and brilliantly lit up Naiden’s life, i.e. the unlit during the performance stairways to the two exits from the hall, from where Naiden’s rival in artistry and love and everything related to those, Zhivko bursts in.
The shortest definition of Racho Stoianov’s play is perhaps ‘a drama of human self-fulfilment’[iii]. Exploring the eternal questions of being––the dramatic nature of the relationship between the individual and society and the conflict between the need for continuity and the yearning for renewal––the author, using an admixture of classical, romantic and modern dramaturgic strategies in the text, succeeds in dealing with the wider problem of man’s innate striving for self-fulfilment, for realising one’s full potential and keeping one’s achievements, which striving is put to the test, however, by the split inherent to human personality between what has been established and what is new, between tradition and rebellion, between safety and freedom, between subjective longings and communal consensuses. This complicated drama of self-fulfilment bursts forth directly in the love triangle between Naiden, Milkana and Zhivko.
Taken together as archetypal figures of the two main types of individual behaviour towards the community and the tradition, Naiden (striving to realise his full potential by fitting in well with both) and Zhivko (striving for self-fulfilment by rebelling and rejecting them) outline an image of an innately split human being. Seen in the same light, Milkana is the protagonist for she is the one to present an undivided human being facing a situation of choice between these two principles in her and the two positions on life.
Petrinel Gotchev identifies himself with this basic existential reading of Masters. As in the rest of his productions, here he also seeks to capture first of all the innate drives and tensions both within the text as a whole and within its elements such as dialogues, situations, personal relationships, language, the playwright’s stage directions. Once he has got to these drives and tensions, he passionately and prodigally rushes to expose those onstage through ingenious and thrilling visual images and plastic compositions. Petrinel Gotchev’s striking and compelling theatre of images has its upsides and downsides demonstrated here once again. His solution to the stage space, both simple and knockout recapitulating the meanings of the play, and the ingenious and inventive set design by Juliana Voikova-Naimans (with whom they teamed up to make a good creative duo) are among the unquestionably strong points of this theatre and a categorical achievement of this production. Memorable are also the wonderful expressive images/pictures of Milkana (Gergana Zmiicharova) flying over the sketches inspired by her for Naiden’s future works or Naiden holding his beloved girl in his arms, when he, in a fit of jealousy and about to lose the woodcarving competition to Zhivko, is caressing and protecting her and hurting and killing her all at once, a scene ingeniously referring to the popular poster of Oskar Kokoschka’s Murderer, the Hope of Women. This list of the director’s achievements is long. Still, as many are the failures of the said directorial strategy, mainly in not pursuing it clearly enough in his work with the performers on articulating their lines, on building their overall tonal and gestural score, where the resourceful rhythmic, plastic and visual solutions alternate with random and trivial ones.
The aforementioned strong and weak points of the directorial strategy show differently in the performance of the actors and actresses. The most categorical and following in derail the development of his character both plastically and visually and as a vibrant and verbal presence is Ivan Yurukov as Naiden. Gergana Zmiicharova as Milkana is very impressive in her expressive plastic performance, but remains uneven in attaining the rhythmic expressiveness of speech. Zhivko’s character was perhaps a real challenge both to the actor and the team behind the production. Zafir Radjab plays in an overly big way with overexposed and more often than not imprecise gestures and tones and eventually, fails to cut the figure of an extreme rebel and loner that he has apparently sought to make.
In conclusion, by choosing the premiere of Masters to open 2017, the National Theatre has hit the mark succeeding in activating and highlighting both the best and the challenging aspects of its repertory: a brave, significant and a promising endeavour.
See the unabridged version in: Литературен вестник, 4, 1-7 February 2017, p. 8
[i] М. Минев. “Народен театър. Майстори”. In: “Хиперион”, VІ, 1927, 7, p. 307
[ii] Ив. Радославов. “Майстори”. In: “Хиперион”, VІ, 1927, 8, p. 366
[iii] Cf.: К. Николова. „Майстори” или драмата на себеосъществяването – In: Камелия Николова (с колектив). Българското драматургично наследство: нови прочити. Издателство „Петко Венедиков”, София, 2006, pp. 77-94