Punters' joy sets a Bard example

A Triptych from the Russian Theatre
August 31, 2001

Great is Komis of the Ephesians," wrote Ivor Brown, of the coruscating production of The Comedy of Errors that Theodore Komissarzhevsky directed at Stratford (1938-39). Komis was the star director of the interwar years. He came out of Russia in 1919, took Chekhov to unprecedented heights at the Barnes Theatre and dazzled Stratford audiences with his Shakespeare throughout the 1930s. In 1939 he vanished to America and, save a visit in 1949, he never returned. Where Gordon Craig left only a legacy, Komis left only his work - and no legacy. Peter Brook has acknowledged his debt to Komis: " Titus Andronicus was a show ; it descended in an unbroken line from the work of Komissarzhevsky." But the RSC has yet to mount an exhibition commemorating his meteoric path across the Memorial Theatre.

The merit of Victor Borovsky's book, A Triptych , is that it restores coherence to a three-part life and sets Komis in the context of his gifted family. Only a Russian speaker deeply versed in the archives of the Russian theatre could do it. We learn that Komis's father, a great tenor and man of the theatre, was a mentor of Stanislavsky. It appears that Fyodor Petrovich Komissarzhevsky more or less invented subtext: "The subtext is what maintains the links between people." His daughter, Vera (Komis's half-sister), a great actress, possessed "the ability to give words a significance other than the dictionary definition". What Stanislavsky termed the "undercurrent" was central to her acting. In these superbly documented theatrical lives, one gains a picture of Russian theatre in the latter 19th and early 20th century, and how Komis's work grew out of it.

Throughout the family ran a vein of the independent, the maverick. Vera would never submit to the "despotism" of Stanislavsky's direction, much as she admired him. Komis never came to terms with the structures of social and theatrical life. "An ability to reach a compromise did not run in the family," notes Borovsky. Hence Komis never attained the institutional position to which many, including Gielgud, thought him entitled. At Stratford he was always a guest director (1932-39). In the US he ran a small school but directed little outside studio productions. The latter end of his life must have seemed a sombre declension, and he died still planning to return to the English stage.

Yet his achievement was great, seen most clearly in his Shakespearean work. "The shock of the new" is barely adequate for his productions at Stratford. The Deadly Theatre was well entrenched in England in the 1930s (and went down fighting in the 1960s). It might as well have been Komis, not Lovat Fraser, to whom the Stratford matron addressed the classic line: "Young man, how dare you meddle with Our Shakespeare?" Komis did more than meddle. When the new Memorial Theatre opened in 1932, he put on a production of The Merchant of Venice where the Belmont loggia came up on a lift. "First floor, caskets. Second floor, roof garden." Morocco was allowed to intone "O hell! What have we here?" in the manner of a motorist who has suffered a burst tyre. A Bach toccata set the scene for a fantastical, astringent Merchant , the like of which nobody had seen before. Komis wrought his miracles with ten days' rehearsals, costumes inherited from the previous Merchant, and with no control over actor appointments. The punters loved it.

And that, broadly, was the story of the next seven years. Always the audiences flocked to his productions, always the critics went down to Stratford-upon-Avon to give Komis's audacities their best thought. William Bridges-Adams, who had made the first invitation to Komis, planned him as a " machine à guerre ". Those ambitious for the Memorial Theatre had a long way to go: in those days Stratford was only a notch above Malvern, and nowhere near as good as the Birmingham Rep. Sir Archibald Flower, supreme ruler of the theatre, backed up Komis, so long as success followed. It is a fascinating alliance, the autocrat and the revolutionary. Later in the 1930s, Sir Archibald must have seen Komis as a shield against the criticisms levelled at the SMT. There at least was a symbol of modernity and innovation. Letters to the local press, heart-rending in their revelation of divided souls, confessed to enjoying Komis's work before adding: "But is it Shakespeare?" Komis's career reached its apogee in 1936. He directed a wonderful King Lear at Stratford, and a luminous Seagull at the New Theatre (with the young Alec Guinness). Then came disaster. Antony and Cleopatra at the New Theatre closed after four days. Eugenie Leontovich's Cleopatra was pilloried by Charles Morgan ( The Times ), who had good advance intelligence of her Russian accent. "O wither'd is the garland of the war" became "O weederlee degarlano devar." James Agate was brutal:

"I do not think that foreign producers, however distinguished, should permit themselves to take such liberties." Komis's enemies were able to stigmatise him as a foreign vandal, licensed to wreak havoc in the temple of the English Shakespeare. He was, in the knife-edge poise of Charles Morgan's phrase, a "chartered revolutionary", permitted, but only up to a point, his amusing audacities.

But to us, Komis looks like the mainstream of the future. Who can speak against the free and flexible exploitation of stage location, continuity of action, eclectic costuming? Who believes in literalism as a basis for criticism of stage effects? Komis had the future in his bones. When he announced to the press, shortly before the opening of his first Stratford production, "I am not in the least traditionalist", he was stating the first line of the 1960s manifesto - before it became a piety. The traditionalists remained in charge in his day.

So it was America for him, and he eventually became a US citizen. Borovsky details Komis's fruitless attempts to get back to England. He might, I think, underestimate the resentment widely felt in England towards those thought to be sitting out the war. Auden and Gertrude Lawrence felt something of this. No favours were extended to a naturalised Briton who looked to have jumped ship in 1939.

Borovsky has done monumental work in rescuing Komis's life. He has interviewed Ernestine Stodelle-Komissarzhevsky, his widow, by whom he had three children. How many others there were is a mystery, for Komis was always secretive. He had, says Borovsky, "nine officially registered marriages". But the coarse and reductive term bigamy should not be applied, since the Russians seemed to have a looser approach to marriage, as both Komis's father and sister attested in their divorces.

Borovsky has made good use of Richard Thompson's Burra-Moody archive and its many letters. Something of Komis is still to be seen in the Granada cinemas of the 1930s, whose interiors he designed for Sidney Bernstein. The Phoenix Theatre and the Granada, Tooting, (now a bingo palace) are held to be his masterpieces. There are other links with today: the cast of his Cymbeline (Montreal, 1950) included Christopher Plummer and William Shatner. A few actors still remember him with great affection. One of them said to me: "Komis adored actors."

Ralph Berry's most recent book is Tragic Instance: The Sequence of Shakespeare's Tragedies .

A Triptych from the Russian Theatre: The Komissarzhevskys

Author - Victor Borovsky
ISBN - 1 85065 412 3
Publisher - None
Price - £29.50
Pages - 485

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