A small theatre in an ancient town

Issue #1 • 1763

A mention of this theatre in a reference book would take up just one paragraph and would look something like this: “The Eski Machit theatre workshop is one of Uzbekistan’s popular theatrical troupes. Organised in the mid – 1990s, it soon became well known thanks to its vivid and emotionally charged performances. The theatre’s carefully selected repertoire is marked by its rich philosophical content and range of acute moral issues. Its productions include “Sheikh Sanan” from motifs in the poems of Attar and Navoi, “Nayman ona” (“Mother Nayman”) from Chinghiz Aytmatov’s novel “The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years”, “Cain and Abel” after Byron’s drama “Cain”, and “My Darling” after the play “A Small Flat with a Big Balcony” by the Georgian playwright A. Shamanadze. The well-known producers Farrukh Kasymov, Barzu Abdurazzakov and Avlyakuli Khojakuliyev are invited to stage its performances. The theatre makes successful foreign tours. Its productions and actors have won prizes at various theatrical festivals and shows.”

The theatre’s brief history also had its prehistory. The Muloqot workshop split away from the M. Tashmukhamedov Theatre in Karshi Region in the late 1980s. The producer A. Abdunazarov suggested its creation and became its organiser. In the mid – 1990s, this workshop gave rise to another, named Eski Machit (Old Mosque). The talented actor I. Turayev became the workshop’s artistic director. At first, the name did not seem a very happy one, little suited to a theatre, a very secular institution. But people gradually became used to it. Now it has become a symbol. As with the names “Lenkom”, “Taganka” and “Ilkhom”, here too the original meaning has been lost, and what remains is an associative symbol, a kind of aesthetic impulse that momentarily awakens in the memory a chain of images, the features of an unmistakable creative identity.

At the turn of the century, the small theatres in the ancient town of Karshi came to be a phenomenon in the Uzbek theatre, one that has not yet been evaluated in terms of all its causes and effects. At a time when people in the capital, with all its advantages, could only dream of alternative theatrical forms, two theatre workshops were set up one after the other in Karshi.

The birth of the Eski Machit theatre and its creative development resulted from a renewal in theatrical thinking. The innovation affected both the organisational model of the private theatre workshop and the orientation towards a system of modern means of conveying expressiveness on the stage. Both called for traditions to be revised.

Theatre and tradition are twin brothers, especially in the East, where theatrical tradition is frequently seen not as theatrical routine, but as an example to be imitated. Fortunately, the Uzbek theatre has plenty of other examples showing how it has been possible to escape from the heavy chain of traditions that buries live thinking and feeling. Eski Majit’s productions are among them.

The production “Mehribonginam” (“My Darling”) proved to be a success because of the genuineness of the moods and feelings it portrayed. The emotional unpredictability of the characters, the detailed aptness of the staging and rhythmical structure and the dynamics of the action rivet the audience’s attention. And, of course, there is the actual message of the production, in which tenderness and love, resilience to adversity and hope for a better future emerge through the dissonance of family rows and life’s customary disarray.

The Tajik producer Barzu Abdurazzakov transferred the action of the Georgian play to Uzbek soil. Previously, he had already staged the play in one of the Russian theatres. This fusion of different cultural experiences in one of the theatre’s first productions proved decisive and was to be a vital element in its creative development. Farrukh Kasymov, a major producer from Tajikistan, would respond to the theatre’s invitation, as would Avlyakuli Khojakuliyev, well known for his productions firstly in the theatres of Turkmenia and now in Uzbekistan.

Receptivity to creative communication and cooperation with partners who bring a different cultural experience is the hallmark of the modern theatrical process, and the Eski Machit theatre espoused it from the outset. A further important development, ushered in by the stage directors, consists of the new interpretation of classical literary material, whereby totally original stage versions of well-known texts are created. But mental fidelity to tradition is expressed in greater trust in the traditions of culture than in the theatrical traditions of staging classical works. This applies mainly to such plays as “Sheikh Sanan”, produced by Kasymov, and “Cain and Abel”, staged by Khojakuliyev.

Whether by chance or not, and probably because of a coincidence of the producers’ interests within a single tendency, both productions exhibit, each in its own way, a currently important aspect of the interaction, outlook and views of the world that have developed in the East and the West. In “Sheikh Sanan”, this theme forms a direct part of the content. The parable of the love of a Muslim man for a Christian woman, poetically interpreted by such major artists of the mediaeval East as Attar, Jami and Navoi, is given a tragic turn in Kasymov’s production. This play about a love that overcomes national and religious boundaries is given a tough, sometimes cruel treatment. The cruelty may give rise to disagreement in the culminating scenes, in which the hero (I. Turayev), a priest at the Muslim shrine, the Kaaba, commits acts that are incompatible with Islam in order to earn the favour of the Roumelian (O. Khalilova) whom he loves. Hooted and jeered by the Christians, Sheikh Sanan burns the Koran, drinks wine and feeds pigs. The phantasmagoria of sacrilege evokes among the audience a protest that is programmed by the producer’s intention: religious intolerance leads to unbridled cruelty, to the trampling of human dignity and to a chaos that destroys the harmony between people of different confessions.

The producer restores this harmony no less spectacularly in the play’s finale. A belated emotional response brings the Christian woman to Sheikh Sanan’s land, where, exhausted by their separation, the heroes die in one another’s arms from the joy of their meeting. As they are accompanied on their last journey, they are laid on a massive black Christian cross and covered over in keeping with Muslim burial rites – a symbol of confessional reconciliation before a single Almighty, a symbol that is remarkably beautiful and intellectually satisfying.

The humanistic freedom of thought displayed by the great poets of the Middle Ages is particularly striking in the age of religious and national narrow-mindedness that looms today. This is the play’s important historical and cultural message, which is indissolubly fused with its artistic and figurative treatment.

All in all, the ontological targeting of the present day is characteristic of Kasymov’s stage direction when he is handling classical texts. It was also fully manifest in the play “Nayman ona”, staged by Kasymov at the Eski Machit theatre. The producer builds his parable about the Mankurt from Aytmatov’s novel on the contrast between the good beginning of cultural traditions and the barbarity of historical forgetfulness. The play “Cain and Abel”, staged at the Eski Machit theatre by Khojakuliyev (a version by G. Dongatarov from motifs in Byron’s drama “Cain”), can be ranked among the most interesting events of recent times in the Uzbek theatre.

The parable of the first fratricide is well known in both the Christian and the Muslim world. The playwright and the producer transform Byron’s play substantially in keeping with Eastern tradition. The East makes its presence felt though the mournful melody, the details of the setting and the costumes, and the names, which have been changed to accord with Eastern tradition: Cain becomes Kobil, Abel is Hobil, Eve is Havva and Lucifer is Yelpek. Bringing the action of the play closer to the birthplace of the three religions is fairly conventional. It did not form part of Byron’s intention, but is attractive to the producer, Khojakuliyev, who is known to incline towards refined aesthetic form. Orientalising the well-known Western drama is not just a matter of gratifying that inclination. The conflict and psychological reactions of the characters as seen by the Anglo – Saxon Byron are interpreted in the play from the standpoint of the Eastern, and more precisely, Muslim mentality.

The religious aspect is natural for a work based on a Biblical parable and Koranic tradition. But the social and moral results, which match the religious ones in the play, are no less important for the modern theatre and the modern audience. As handled by the theatre, the story of Cain’s fall and repentance emerged as a protest against fratricide and violence, an affirmation of harmony and creation as mankind’s highest values.

The theatre’s productions are interesting by virtue of their expressive, figurative treatment and the energy of the modern message. But the fruitfulness of the producers’ endeavours is largely ensured here by the splendid corps of actors. They are the “veterans” of the workshop, such as I. Turayev and O. Khalilova, as well as those on whom the theatre draws for just one or several parts. Not all that many productions have been staged by Eski Machit. But today it is impossible to imagine the modern Uzbek theatre without those few plays by the little theatre from Karshi.

Author: Ildar Mukhtarov

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