Bishkek Hosts Macbeth with a Twist

In March 2018 I was lucky enough to spend six extraordinary weeks in Kyrgyzstan directing the first ever Kyrgyz translation of Macbeth, translated from the Russian into Kyrgyz, at the state theatre in Bishkek. I was working with 30 Kyrgyz actors who spoke no English and I don’t speak Russian or Kyrgyz.


To add to the mix I took two British actors with me who performed in English indi-vidually with the rest of the cast playing in Kyrgyz.They played Lady Macbeth and Macbeth respectively. In addition there was also a fully Kyrgyz performance which was filmed and screened on State TV.

So I had to deliver three different versions of the production in just over three weeks, as we performed four premieres, with the cast variations. The challenge of that aside, their method of working is entirely different. The company comprises of people who have trained there and effectively are attached to the theatre through-out their working life, this has advantages and disadvantages.

The advantages are that they practice their craft every day, and are used to working as a company. They are vocally highly trained and can easily fill an 800 seat thea-tre. They are physically grounded and able to experiment with movement and voice. For example the witches and Hecate invented a unique style of delivery incorporat-ing song and dance into the text.

The disadvantages are that they are not hungry for work in the same way that Brit-ish actors are. We were, I think, mutually bemused by the casting process. In Brit-ain it is standard that even well known actors interview or audition for roles and it took some time and a little diplomacy to explain that as I wasn’t familiar with their work, I would need to meet and audition them. I am glad to say that even the great state artists came to meet me, and I consider myself very lucky to have had the op-portunity to work with them.

Because of the state system they lack, to some degree, the competitive edge, and this affects their attitude to punctuality, line learning and even taking direction. It was noticeable that the younger actors were markedly less disciplined than the old-er actors who had trained under the old Soviet system. In the UK you have to con-stantly audition for the next job, it’s rare to belong to a company for more than a year at most, and that insecurity means not only are you only as good as your last job, but if you are not disciplined or reliable you won’t be employed again.

As in the UK, there is some sense that they are more interested in television and film than in theatre, despite their long tradition of storytelling and theatrical perfor-mance.

The whole production took place on a virtually bare stage with the actors providing a live soundscape and, through movement, a form of living scenery. It was fascinat-ing navigating the huge cultural differences and finding, of course, a common lan-guage in theatre. We discovered that the challenge of acting opposite someone speaking a different language was surmountable when the intentions of the scene or particular line were clear.
The challenge for the actors in particular wasn’t so much in the language but in the differing approach to rehearsals and the text. It quickly became apparent that we adhere much more strictly to and are led by the verse, whereas for Kyrgyz actors that is just one element of the performance. They do not adhere as strictly to the text, for example, which sometimes proved problematical, as key cue lines were sometimes omitted.

I was greatly impressed by their passion, technical ability and their willingness to take risks and commit to their performances. It was some of the most exciting thea-tre I have participated in. I felt privileged to work with such experience and talent and we had a lot of laughter along the way. I feel we had a great deal to learn from one another and it has left me with a thirst to work further with artists from Central Asia.

Kyrgyszstan as a post soviet state has a huge love and respect for culture, though as in the UK, the interest in theatre is waning and needs to be reinvented. This cross cultural fusion was the brainchild of the distinguished writer and politician Sultan Raev, a great cultural figurehead for his country. He invited me to direct the production after we met at the international festival “Women and War” which I pro-duced in London in 2016.

I had intended to bring the cast back to London but owing to the fact that the fund-ing completely fell through, that is unlikely, though I think we have much to learn from one another. I would very much like to bring the company here and to continue our cultural exchange. The production itself worked remarkably well given its dis-parate elements and the lack of rehearsal time. I would recommend the experience of working in such a different arena as it informs our practice and the more we can develop international links and collaborations the better.

The people of Kyrgyzstan were so welcoming, their culture so ancient and rich and the landscape so beautiful that it has won a lasting place in my heart. I look forward hugely to visiting and collaborating more with the artists of Central Asia, as our two great cultures have much to share and art is a great way to open the door to not just cultural but social, political and economical exchange.

by Sarah Berger

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