An old score finally settled in the final act

I know now, I understand at last, Constantine, that for us, whether we write or act, it is not the honour and glory of which I have dreamt that is important, it is the strength to endure.

—The Seagull, Act 4

One day, my friend Juris asked me to go see a new version of The Seagull. This was in Riga, in 2017. I had returned to visit Latvia after a long absence.

“Good old Seagull,” I said to Juris. “I directed a clown version once. Where is this production?”

Juris hesitated. “At the National Theatre.”

“No, thank you,” I replied. “Not the National.”

It was because of the shawl. The theft still gave a punch to my gut. Who could be so malicious? I tried to recall the faces of the actors. Was it one of them? Had they hated me so much? My mother had given me that shawl, and since she had died, it had been my special treasure: handmade, wool, a tender shimmer of violet and dark blue, shot with pink and yellow stripes, colors she’d chosen specially for her dreamy, difficult daughter. Now my precious shawl was gone, and it was all because I had directed a play at the National Theatre, some ten years before.

I was an interloper there.

Of course, female artists of my generation had to get used to interloping. When I began to direct in the 1980s, female directors were very rare. Even in Canada, a woman giving orders aroused subtle resistance. In Latvia, the resistance was more pronounced. Women were supposed to act like “women”; we couldn’t open our own doors, or, heavens forfend, uncork a wine bottle. A male colleague once literally leaned on me like a mantelpiece, his beefy elbow on my shoulder, and asked, “How can you, such a porcelain figure, lead all those actors?” Yes, how can a porcelain ornament get actors to do their best? What does female authority look like?

I was in a very bad mood when I got the call about directing the play at the National. My husband and I had moved all our belongings to Riga from Toronto, fixed up a derelict apartment, found schools for the kids, but that season I had no shows. I sat brooding in our apartment, wrapped in the shawl my mother had given me. Just then, the Playwright and Composer called. They knew me well since I had directed their children’s opera, a huge hit. As soon as I met them for coffee, my fate was sealed.

“Are you busy? Please say you’re not,” said the Playwright.

“We’ve written a new musical. It’s called Hotel Kristina. The thing is, rehearsals have already begun,” the Composer said. He was a heavy, bullish man.

“Excuse me?” I said. “I thought it was a new show.”

“Well . . . Edmunds is directing. But he’s too old. He’s too conservative. He’s clueless.”

Edmunds had been at the National Theatre forever. He’d started as an actor and had stepped in as artistic director in the mid-1990s, when Latvia regained its independence and the theaters had to switch from being fully funded by the state to fending for themselves under capitalism. “I can’t stand mounting all those shitty musicals anymore,” said his revered predecessor, and quit. Edmunds could stand it. He was the kind of guy who survived any regime. Communism, capitalism, artistic nihilism—he floated on every wave. What was the point of theater anyway, unless to give people an excuse to wear clean clothes, have a few drinks, and take a good nap in Act Three? Under his aegis, the Theatre plodded on.

“You’re our only hope,” the Playwright said. She was a sturdy, owlish woman.

“But it’s Edmunds,” I said.

“Who cares?” The Playwright blinked through her thick glasses. “Art stands above Edmunds’s ego. He doesn’t understand my work.”

“Exactly.” The Composer slugged back an espresso.

“But this is an impossible situation. I’d have to recast the whole thing,” I countered.

“Perfect,” the Composer said. “I know exactly who you should get.”

The trap was set. At the behest of the Playwright, I had lunch with the General Manager. His position carried more power than that of the Artistic Director. “You’re the only person who can do it,” he said. “You’re from Canada. You don’t have attachments to anybody, not like the rest of us. Oh, and I like your work, I always have. More wine?” 

I asked the Manager how he thought the actors would react. Some of them had known Edmunds for nigh on thirty years, since his acting days. Latvian theaters operated on a repertory system rooted in the nineteenth century. If you got a job as an actor at the National Theatre, you could expect to work there for the rest of your life. Taking a show away from another director would be a scandal under any conditions. Wouldn’t the actors be upset?

“Oh, no,” the Manager said. He was an apple-cheeked man, always smiling. “The actors will be relieved. Dessert?”

The National is steeped in pomp and nostalgia. The main stage is a room of gold and velvet, with a sparkling crystal light in the middle that fades slowly to black. At intermission, audiences practice an idiosyncratic tradition popular in the Soviet era: people file out into the lobby and then walk in a circle in a hushed parade as if they are prisoners on a yard break.

Tradition and predictability were highly cherished at the National—too cherished, the Ministry of Culture had decided. The smiling, apple-cheeked General Manager had been hired as an innovator. He brought in some brash directors, brasher than me. As a result, some actors had quit, some had been fired. The theater was in an uproar—a detail the Manager neglected to tell me. He wanted me to take the job, to gallop into the fray on a white charger. And I did.

• • •

The theatre is merely the vehicle of convention and prejudice.

The Seagull, Act 1

One scene, in particular, had sparked the decisive conflict between Edmunds and the creators. In Kristina, the madame of a bordello dreams of marrying the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. Gagarin, of course, was the first man in space and a hero of the USSR, and the scene was a withering commentary on Latvian nostalgia for the former Soviet regime. But for Edmunds, it was too much.

“That scene is in bad taste,” Edmunds said. “We have to cut it.”

The Playwright was horrified. “It’s a profound political statement. We must stamp out the ridiculous attachments people have for the oppressive past.”

“All those gray-haired ladies who paid for their tickets loved Gagarin. His picture was stuck to the wall next to their beds,” Edmunds argued, his moustache trembling.

“Art above everything,” the Playwright insisted.

“I wrote a great song,” the Composer added. He’d written a virtuosic aria.

Edmunds wouldn’t budge, and so the Playwright and the Composer had ditched him and turned to me.

I loved the Gagarin scene. And I didn’t mind kicking a sacred cow or two.

Edmunds had already assembled his cast, but I demanded auditions. This was a common practice in English theaterre; in Latvia, it was threatening and “foreign.” As a result of the tryouts, an actor who thought he had the lead role got a smaller one. An actor who usually had small roles got a big one. Neither of them was happy. I’d disrupted the usual pecking order, disturbed their equilibrium. As the Composer requested, I also brought in fresh talent to join the standing ensemble: an Ingenue, a budding Pop Star, and an Opera Diva. Good singers all, they too were interlopers.

“I’ve never had the lead role before! It’s such an honor!” The Ingenue wielded a blinding smile. She’d recently returned to Latvia after studying abroad.

“Sure, I’d love to try something new,” the budding Pop Star drawled. He had a male-waif vibe and had never acted before.

“For you, my dear, anything,” said the Opera Diva. We’d weathered several productions together. “But watch your back. You know what they say about the National Theatre. The only people you can trust are the two men at the front.”

“What two men in the front? You mean at the bar?”

“No, the front, look at the front.”

The front of the National Theatre had a stone balustrade supported by statuary. Two carefully carved, hunky, semi-nude men bent under the weight of the building. They had been frozen there for a hundred years. The only ones you can trust.

From the first day of rehearsal, funny things kept happening to us interlopers. The Ingenue was hit the hardest. Even I wasn’t exempt from the hazing. One day, I brought a large box of chocolate to the theater as a treat for the actors. I put it on the table in the room for guest directors and went to the washroom. When I returned, the box was gone. “Oh, dear Director,” my assistants said, “how careless of you. There are thieves in the theater.” Another day, I left my special blue mug on the table. “We have no idea where it is,” my assistants said. “Dear Director, it’s your own fault.”

My mother would have been so pleased that I was at the National Theatre, a “real” theater with a red curtain, directing a work by that famous Playwright! That Composer! The theater was drafty, and I walked its halls wrapped in the shawl from my mother. Then the shawl, too, disappeared. No one even pretended to search for it.

I was struck to the core. That shawl was irreplaceable. Every thread reminded me of my dead mother. Whoever did this, I thought, was evil. Someone was tittering in a dressing room; someone was scoffing at my lack of professionalism. Someone got away with everything: insulting a young artist, insulting a diva, insulting me.

The deeper we got into rehearsal, the more trouble there was. The wood-paneled halls of the theater were slick with gossip: the Manager was sleeping with me, the Manager was sleeping with the Ingenue, I was sleeping with the Pop Star, everyone was sleeping with everyone else. I was going to take over Edmunds’s lavishly appointed office, put down his cat, and smash the china. Canadians didn’t know how to direct; the Ingenue couldn’t act; the Pop Star was a fool; the Diva sang flat. The play was a disaster and the audience would walk out on the opening night.

All this toxic behavior boiled down to a struggle between the new Manager and the old Artistic Director. I never saw Edmunds anywhere in the theater, but he was hard at work in the wings.

On a daily basis, I resolved to knock on his heavy oak door, just down the hall from my own office, walk in, sit down, and say, “Edmunds. This is ridiculous. The two of us must resolve the situation.” In my fantasy, he would stroke his cat, then his moustache, then pour tea from a glazed teapot left to him by his uncle from the time of the first Latvian republic. We might not have become the best of friends, but we would have been reasonable. Edmunds would pour tea and make the hazing stop, and my mother’s shawl would never be stolen. But I never bridged the gulf between my guest room and his office.

On opening night, someone cut the straps of the Ingenue’s shoes with a razor blade. The Diva was terrified. What if the audience booed? “I’m going to faint,” she moaned, then walked into the lights and nailed the toughest notes. As the Madame trilled with love and linked hands romantically with the cosmonaut, a bridal gown unfurled from her body like white smoke from a rocket. The older spectators sitting in the orchestra sat stone-faced. But the balconies were full of a younger generation; they roared with laughter. As far as I was concerned, the Gagarin scene was a success. In fact, I was proud of the whole kit and kaboodle. Hotel Kristina was a gutsy, inventive show. And on stage, at least, the cast was unified and slick.

But while the play was still in rehearsals, a letter to the Ministry of Culture had been drawn up, demanding the Manager’s removal. Everyone who had ever worked at the National was brought in to sign the petition. The oldest actors known to man tottered into the theater, grizzled and bent, to take a pen into their shaking hands. The letter was carried to the Ministry. As soon as Hotel Kristina opened, the apple-cheeked General Manager was dismissed.

The next General Manager, a hasty new appointment, liked Hotel Kristina. “As good as any show in London’s West End,” he said to me. Musicals by the Playwright and the Composer usually ran in repertory for several years. But Kristina closed down quickly. Not because tickets weren’t selling—they were—but because the National Theatre wanted it gone. “Given the negative associations,” the management explained to me. The show was abandoned, and all that Sturm und Drang was for naught.

• • •

I am nothing, nobody.

—The Seagull, Act 1

Ten years passed. I moved back to Canada under dramatic circumstances. It took a while before I could bring myself to return to Riga, let alone visit its theaters.

Now I was back and my friend Juris wanted me to see a new version of The Seagull. What did it matter that the show was playing at the National? Juris knew the whole sad story. Times had changed, he said. He wanted me to see work by his protégé, a Promising Young Director.

I relented. I arrived at the stately building on a crisp spring evening. I saluted the two stone men I could trust, braced myself, and walked into the lobby. A doorman in a red-and-gold uniform spoke to me. “Madam Director,” he said. “You are in the wrong theater. You’re coming for The Seagull,yes? It’s at the New Studio.”

I hadn’t been there for ten years, and yet I’d been recognized right away.

The New Studio was a modernist addition to the building, where no haunting memories awaited me. The theater was an austere black box, with room for some eighty spectators. I took my seat next to Juris, who was buzzing with anticipation.

As soon as the show began, I was swept up by Chekhov’s story of people casually and thoroughly doing harm to each other. The Promising Young Director had created an iconoclastic Seagull, one that dug deep into the jealousies between artists and generations. To my surprise, my shock even, Edmunds was on stage as Uncle Sorin. Chekhov describes Sorin as an old man in his sixties. Edmunds was sixty-nine, and he played Sorin’s hapless wisdom with warmth and skill. I began to regret that we were never friends. I imagined scenarios in which we conversed and laughed and worked together. I was filled with the desire to reconcile.

Until Act 4.

Sorin was on his deathbed. In this iconoclastic production, the family gathered by an artificial Christmas tree. Edmunds lay on a lawn chair, expiring under a shawl. A pink-and-violet shawl.

My mother’s shawl.

The stage exploded. I leapt to my feet and stopped the production.

No: I waited for the curtain call, then stormed on stage and ripped the shawl away while Edmunds was mid-bow.

After the curtain call, I stormed into the dressing rooms and accused Edmunds of theft. He fell to his knees and wept.

Or: I marched down the dark hallways and ripped open the heavy oak door of Edmunds’s office to find him hunched over my mother’s shawl in near darkness.

After the show, I banged on the door. Three handsome actors lounged on his couch, drinking tea. “Is this about the shawl?” Edmunds asked and stroked his moustache. They all laughed, even the cat.

Or maybe I waited outside by the stage door. Edmunds looked so very old without his make-up. I tapped him on the shoulder brusquely. “I want my shawl back,” I said. He thought I was drunk. He called the police.

But seriously.

The administrator of the National Theatre was someone I knew. The morning after The Seagull, I sent her an email. Thank you for the show. What a great job. By the way, Hotel Kristina. So long ago. Funny jokes played on me and the guest actors. Shoes, thefts. Strange to see my mother’s shawl on Sorin’s shoulders.

She replied instantly. “Your shawl is waiting for you at the stage door. Those were complicated times at the theater.”

I scooped up the shawl and took it straight to the dry cleaners.

It looks good now.

About the Author

Baņuta Rubess

Baņuta Rubess is a writer and director with a string of innovative productions to her credit for audiences in Europe and Canada. One of the first batch of women to win the Rhodes Scholarship, she has a doctorate in history from the University of Oxford.

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