Moscow’s fringe ‘Doc’ theatre faces ‘censorship’ with eviction

Theatre hosts ‘zombie’ politician performance as Russia discourages Halloween celebrations

Performer wears Vladimir Putin mask in Halloween performance at Moscow’s ‘Doc’ theatre. Photograph: Alexey Zhiryakov

Performer wears Vladimir Putin mask in Halloween performance at Moscow’s ‘Doc’ theatre. Photograph: Alexey Zhiryakov

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Russia has been discouraging public celebrations of Halloween as part of a campaign against western influence.

But that did not stop Teatr.Doc from staging a bitingly satirical “Night of the Living Dead” on Friday night in what may be one of the last ever productions at the tiny basement theatre in central Moscow famous for innovative and uncompromising work.

In a move that has shaken the international theatrical community, the Moscow authorities have ordered Teatr.Doc to vacate the basement on grounds that it had violated property regulations.

Many people think the eviction order masks an illegal attempt to censor one of Moscow’s few independent theatres and turn the premises into something and more profitable and predictable like a cocktail bar or billiard hall.

Problems began at Teatr.Doc, or “Doc” as it’s known among Moscow theatre buffs, when fire inspectors visited in April and ordered the theatre to replace a window with a door. What initially looked like a safety precaution turned out to be bureaucratic trap. Moscow City Property Department has ruled the new exit breaches structural rules and has terminated Teatr.Doc’s lease.

“We’re not state-owned and don’t receive any government funding so the lease is the only weapon the authorities can use against us,” said Mr Ugarov who co-founded Teatr.Doc with his wife and fellow playwright and director Elena Gremina in 2002.

News of Teatr.Doc’s eviction has sparked outrage. More than 6,200 people including Elyse Dodgson, international director at London’s Royal Court Theatre, and Hollywood actor Bill Pullman have signed a petition on change.org urging Moscow’s mayor to reverse the decision.

Russia has reverted to Soviet style censorship and “petty vindictiveness” to silence Teatr.Doc, British playwright Tom Stoppard wrote in an open letter published last week. “With sorrow one cannot help noting that the battle for freedom of expression which has been won in the past has to be fought again by this tiny theatre.”

Founded in the early years of Vladimir Putin’s rule, Teatr.Doc has made enemies with documentary work that explores the social and political fall out from Russia’s slide towards authoritarianism.

Russian Christian Orthodox activists, accompanied by a state television crew, burst into a 2012 production about the the trial of two Pussy Riot punk singers (who had been jailed for performing an anti-Putin song in a Moscow cathedral)calling on the actors to repent.

Although Mr Ugarov has occasionally received verbal warnings from people unconnected with the authorities, the eviction order is the first time his theatre has come under direct official attack.

Mr Ugarov believes that the Ukraine crisis that has already prompted a Kremlin crackdown on independent media, has deeply alarmed the Russian authorities who are now turning their guns on the theatre.

“I think we may be in for a difficult time,” he said. “It’s very strange that a powerful government controlling a vast country like Russia should be threatened by a small theatre with just seventy seats....Their nerves must be out of order.”

In a gesture of solidarity, several Russian theatres and even one Georgian theatre have offered to share space with their homeless colleagues. ‘Doc’ actors, writers and directors are clinging to the hope that Moscow City might bow to public pressure and revoke the eviction order.

Teatr.Doc has enriched Russian culture by developing new ways of working with audiences that, in the best tradition of fringe theatre, have invigorated mainstream television and cinema and inspired new writing, said Russian playwright Eugene Kazachkov. “But theatre makes people think, and it’s easier to manage a country where people don’t think,” he added.

At a benefit production on Halloween night, Teatr.Doc played to a full house with a collection of sketches that poked fun at “zombie” Russian parliamentarians, corrupt journalists and parents appalled that their children attend demonstrations.

Russian humour tends to be dark, here it was black as treacle. Co-founder Mikhail Ugarov performed in a one-man show in the form of a letter sent from a train carrying victims of Nazi persecution to a German concentration camp. “Dear Fritz,” he said. “In any uncertain situation, make theatre. It helps avoid unnecessary nervousness.”

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