Moscow theatre forced to drop curtain again after crackdown

Teatr.Doc has been ordered out of its premises after more provocative work

When Moscow authorities evicted Teatr.Doc from its theatre late last year, the intrepid Russian drama group refurbished a derelict building in the north of the city and resumed its politically controversial work.

Three months after re-opening, Teatr.Doc is once again being forced to look for a new home. After being called in for questioning by Russian prosecutors on Monday, Elena Gremina, one of the group’s founders, said they had received orders to vacate the new premises by August 1st for allegedly breaching administrative rules.

The latest eviction order follows the premier last week of The Bolotnaya Square Case, a documentary play about families whose loved ones were imprisoned after scuffles broke out at a large anti-government protest in Moscow's Bolotnaya Square in May 2012.

Kremlin critics say police provoked the disorder and the defendants were unfairly convicted of participating in “mass riots” and assaulting law enforcers. The Bolotnaya Square trials have become symbolic of a crackdown on dissent during Vladimir Putin’s third term as president.

Police and rehearsals

Police searched Teatr.Doc’s premises during rehearsals of

The Bolotnaya Square Case

and hovered around the building as the premier opened last week in what was seen as an attempt to intimidate theatre-goers.

Even the name of the production scared law enforcers stiff, Mikhail Ugarov, the co-founder of Teatr.Doc, wrote on Facebook. “Who likes being reminded of their crimes?”

Russia’s constitution protects freedom of expression but, with the conflict in Ukraine and the economic slowdown stoking uncertainty, the Kremlin has grown increasingly wary of critical voices.

A swathe of prohibitive new laws banning – among other things – the propaganda of homosexuality, cursing in public, offending religious feeling, extremism and inciting people to protest has provided state censors with extra scope.

Russian Christian Orthodox Church leaders have backed the new restrictions that have been framed as a rejection of the decadent West and a return to traditional values.

Vladimir Medinsky, the Russian culture minister, fired the director of a Siberian theatre early this year after the modern staging of Richard Wagner's 19th-century opera Tannhauser angered a local Christian Orthodox bishop.

Wagner’s opera, first performed in 1845, is about a man who falls for the charms of Venus, but eventually returns to the Catholic Church. In the version at the Novosibirsk State Opera, the hero was depicted as a film director who portrays Jesus Christ battling the temptations of the goddess of love.

Several Russian films have fallen foul of official censors as new rules demanding historical accuracy come into force. Ordered to Forget, a drama about the deportation of Chechens in the Stalin era, was banned by the culture ministry last year on grounds that it might "ignite ethnic tensions".

Another furore erupted when the culture ministry slammed Leviathan – a film about life in a bleak northern Russian town by director Andrey Zvagintsev – as too "depressing". Mr Medinsky said that the culture ministry would not help fund films that portrayed Russia negatively.

One of the few independent drama groups in Moscow, Teatr.Doc has won admirers in Russia and abroad for innovative, documentary productions. For a tiny theatre with no more than 100 seats, it punches above its weight, fearlessly tackling touchy subjects.

But with pressure building on cultural institutions to tow the official Kremlin line, many of “Doc’s” followers fear the theatre’s days may be numbered. Police, claiming to be responding to a bomb threat, stormed into the theatre during a screening of a film about violence in Ukraine last December, and shepherded the audience outside. A extremism case later opened against Teatr.Doc was dropped.

New location

Ms Gremina who travelled to Germany this week to attend a Teatr.Doc production at Berlin’s Schaubuhne, pledged Doc would continue to stage plays in Moscow and the search for a new premises had begun.

With two months to go before the eviction order kicks in, Doc was poking fun at Russia’s healthcare on Monday, with a comedy set in a pre-natal clinic where all the expectant mothers were men.

Another staging of The Bolotnaya Square Case is planned later this month. "We are not frightened at all," said Vsevolod Lisovsky, a Doc director. "It's all idiocy."

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