“Steps of the Enemy” by Nikolai Evrenov at Staatstheater Braunschweig

eActress does not act. Ukrainian Antonina Romanova is shown on the screen in the back of the stage. As a volunteer, she says, I volunteered for military service back home and took an oath. She was sitting in a garage or barn somewhere in Ukraine, and she was supposed to play that evening at the Staatstheater Braunschweig. It is the evening of the premiere of Nikolai Evrenov’s play “Steps of the Enemy” – created around 1941, and for the first time it was shown a hundred days after the start of the war. The play deals with the trials of the Moscow Show between 1936 and 1938, and is thus a play about a theater that claims to be nothing.

The fact that the actress isn’t acting at the moment, but instead talks about why she can’t appear on stage today, is also a sad irony. Because Evrenov’s basic thesis on theater theory was: We are all actors, just as we are spectators. Life is all a stage and nature is just a pause.

A double game of life and death

It is therefore natural that Evrenov worked extensively on the organization of the Stalinist mock trials. In public trials, large sections of the former and active leadership of the Bolsheviks were accused of alleged crimes – and often sentenced to death. In his play, Evrenov has party officials such as Bukharin, editor-in-chief of Pravda, or Yagoda, head of the NKVD and one of the people responsible for building the Gulag, and Stalin himself appears.

In the play “International Laboratory Ensemble” under the direction of director Yuri Burt Anderson, the majority of the actual action takes place behind the screen, where black and white recordings of these very events are shown. Behind the scenes, that is, the actual processes take place, where the heroes chase each other, pretend alliances and betray each other. Against the background of the Great Terror, when it was said that suicide was “an unattainable luxury in the Lubyanka vaults”, everyone here at least plays a double game, and in the end the judges also end up in the dock.


The courtroom is the scene of an apocalyptic sport: a scene from “Enemy’s Steps” at the Braunschweig State Theater.
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Photo: Joseph Rubin

The production finds appropriate expressions of the despair, fear and self-denial necessary for survival beyond text presented in German, English, Russian and Ukrainian. In front of the screen, the stage surrounded by low wooden walls is reminiscent of the courtroom and the sports arena. Here, the group’s performative interludes, dressed in white shirts and gray suspenders, demonstrate what hasn’t been said: Mummering is the last desperate form of protest. In a scene set to symbiotic music and the jazz sounds of piano and drums, we see two actors who seem to be whispering something to a third person. He listens greedily at first, then thinks about it quickly and eventually prefers not to hear anything at all. But the others are already hanging on his ear, and they cannot be flicked and clinging to him as if they had grown up. This knot of people, dragging itself lazily across the stage, looks almost sculptural: a reminder that a verdict of guilt does not require action, but merely existence.

Corresponding to these silent moments are two commentators on the referee’s chairs to the right and left of the stage. On the other hand, radio advertisements are made about the trial – propaganda here spoils the functions of the Greek choir: the events are not classified in an explanatory way, but are reinterpreted as a basic building block of false construction.

An endless cycle of fantasy

On the other hand, says writer Evrinov, explaining his theory of life as a theater, or calls the accused Bukharin the words he put in his mouth in the play, while the prosecutor asks him to make these confessions, which he actually said in the historical process. The confessions at the trial were fantasies of the truth, the text in the play was a figment of the trial, and the instructions on the stage were a figment of the text. There was truth somewhere, long ago, missing in the infinite loop of imagination.

So does Nemesis, whose translation has just been published by Diaphanes-Verlag, an oppressive didactic play about the social and psychological implications of a reality shaped by propaganda and shaped by intimidation. In a time of Russian war propaganda, gossiping about “de-Nazification” and dragging members of the opposition to court with trumped-up allegations, this is a bittersweet piece of current affairs.

But not only the piece itself, but also the process of its creation has something to say about the day. It was written by Evrenov in exile in Paris, where he collected information about the show trials under the title “Theater and the Scaffold”. In one of the scenes he appears “Octabrina”, a kind of Bolshevik baptism. Evrenov, who had left Russia in 1924, was apparently unaware that by the late 1930s this ritual had become almost non-existent there. This shows how difficult it is to stay informed about life in a self-isolating Russia, even for seasoned observers.

In the USSR, the words “Keep forever” were stamped on the files of alleged “state criminals”. One can probably say at the premiere of Evrenov: it was kept for this time.

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