On a late August day in 2004 I checked into the Radisson Hotel in Moscow. The receptionist chirpily said “Ah Mr Irwin you are staying with us for 49 nights”. My heart sank, from previous recce visits I knew that this was not a good idea. What follows are the despatches that I sent home as we progressed. Some of my readers will have read them before but there is a whole new generation of We Will Rock You crew who might enjoy them so I make no apologies.
Moscow Diary 1
Well here we are on the 7th day of the load –in and we progress slowly but steadily. We have some lighting hung, we have 80% of the showdeck down, we have ripped out the substage ready for lift installation. Sadly the sound rig has not yet arrived but is promised for today. So our Production Sound Engineer, Chris Vass, and Autograph’s representative, PJ, have had plenty of time to be tourists, unfortunately for them they were both laid low by food poisoning on the second night, proof positive that there is a God.
We are still trying to sort out the generator problem and we are not nailed down on a video playback system. A laser contractor was here today and seemed to know what he was talking about.
The relationship with the theatre is very tiresome. Simple tasks like getting doors unlocked require a great deal of negotiation. Putting the dimmer racks on the fly floor created a fair old rumpus locals being convinced that the fly floor would collapse. No one seemed reassured when I pointed out that we had removed 2 tons of counterweights from the fly floor before we put the racks up there. Almost everything we do is greeted with howls of outrage and much shaking of heads by leathery old gentlemen who probably remember the good old days when Stalin sat in the stalls and a good time was had by all. Security is provided by unsmiling young men in dark suits who prowl the corridors and foyers. We had one particularly joyous moment when one of these thugs refused to let Ian Moulds, our production electrician, open one of his flight cases unless he had written authority from Sergei Baranov.
Sergei also prowls the building dispensing humour and charm in equal measure!
The Radisson Hotel is about 20 mins from the theatre depending on the traffic and is a typical international hotel, biggish rooms, proper bath, excellent breakfast and some of the best looking prostitutes I have seen for a long time hanging round the bar.
Travelling by car in Moscow can be exhilarating, one should recall the old Russian proverb “ In the land of the Russian driver the panel beater is king.” The Metro is highly recommended (Chechen suicide bombers permitting!) each station superbly and individually decorated. I’ve never had to wait more than 30 sec for a train.
Food comes in different shapes and sizes. There are the restaurants in the hotel mall which have menus quaintly priced in ‘conventional units’, a coy way of describing dollars at a ruinous exchange rate. Then there are top of the range Moscow restaurants like the one with a ‘Ukrainian’ village in the middle of it complete with live goats, hens and pretty peasant girls. At the rear of the theatre is Buffet No7 which serves decent Russian food and to the right of FOH is a café which is not only OK but cheap as chips. There is also a small canteen in the basement of the theatre where you could probably live for a hundred years and not spend a week’s per diems.
To sum up we are undoubtedly behind schedule and it’s bloody hard work! Lost in translation! Phooee! We don’t just lose things in translation here, we kidnap them, torture them to death, boil them in oil, chop them up and serve them on toast!
Moscow Diary 2
We have completed the second week of the load-in. The sound rig turned up 8 days late (a little local difficulty in Lithuania) but our sound and light teams have made good progress. They plough on dragging their local crews kicking and screaming along with them. They show great forbearance and tempers have not been lost. Sadly I don’t do quite so well in this respect. I tend to be irritable by 10.00am, angry by midday, homicidal by 5.00pm and completely out of control and in need of restraint by 8.00pm.
The Estrada itself is a major source of frustration, it is locked in a bizarre Stalinist time-warp. The whole building is severely overmanned with elderly people who do nothing. As you enter the stage door there is normally a cheery lady to greet you though sometimes it is a malevolent looking chap who looks disconcertingly like the vampire in Nosferatu. Sat a few feet from the stage door person is another man whose sole responsibility seems to be to sign out dressing room keys. Sat next to him is another man who idly watches a CCTV view of the stage door. Once you have run this gauntlet you may encounter on stage a man wearing a red arm band. I assumed that perhaps he was taking part in Communist Pride Week but no, apparently this armband denotes that he is in overall charge of the stage. A surprise to me as I have never seen him do or say anything.
Unlocking doors! Aargh! Every morning requires a struggle to unlock the doors to the foyers, where we store our equipment, and to the circle where the control room is. I now know how the Russians won the battle of Stalingrad. They simply withdrew very slowly locking all the doors behind them as they went until the Germans went insane.
The hole in the forestage, the muddy hole in the forestage (which is surprising considering the stage is on the 3rd floor) where our lift will go remains the centre of much speculation. Every day a new team of men arrive to stand in the hole for a few minutes, shake their heads then depart. We are promised that the lift will be installed on the 18th!
The scenery is notable for it’s absence. But we do now have a band platform which has been well made and major developments are imminent.
The now notorious 7.00pm meetings have taken on the quality of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. We have them at a long table in a basement room in the theatre. I fully expect people to cry ‘No room! No room!’ as I approach the table. Sergei (known affectionately as Caligula by his staff) takes the chair and explains how the meeting will be run. He will ask all the questions (and he asks me specifically never to interrupt him) and then at the end we can remind him of any questions that he might have forgotten to ask. He then proceeds to browbeat his staff and scenery contractors into making promises that they cannot possibly keep. The other night at the end of the meeting he turned to me and said ‘Everything is OK, all the scenery will be delivered on the 18th’.
I glanced across the table at Oleg, the main scenery contractor, who was sitting with his head in his hands, and I thought ‘I have just been told the biggest lie since Hitler said he had no more territorial demands in Europe’.
All I can say is that my staff (who shamefully tend to giggle at these meetings) and I await the 18th with bated breath.
Away from the theatre news from the costume dept is reassuring and I have seen some good wigs. I haven’t seen any rehearsals, which are taking place on the other side of Moscow.
We have been talking to staff and Sergei has taken on 2 showcallers neither of whom have any experience. At our meeting I explained the task ahead of them, the lovely Julia gazed at me uncomprehending but beautiful while Ashod furiously wrote down every single word that I said. An analogy leaps to mind, picture a packed 747 (crippled child, singing nun etc), the pilot and co-pilot collapse after eating the prawn cocktail, these 2 kids have to land the 747! Tracey we need you!
At present there is no stage manager worthy of the name.
Our best signing is probably Seva, video operator, who came for an interview, watched the Perth video, turned his nose up at the video scheme proposed by a local contractor, went away and designed a system himself which he then sourced and demonstrated in the theatre 2 days later (on our cheap and cheerful Russian screens). He managed to demonstrate every effect required in the show within 15 minutes with the exception of time code synchronisation. He may look as if he’s only twelve years old but the boy’s a genius. Willie Williams and Smasher are providing a non-synch version of Radio Ga Ga and One Vision.
Possibly the biggest triumph of the week is the completion of the re-translation of the script from Russian back into English so that we have a script that lines up word for word, so that we Brits can work out where the hell we are in the Cyrillic script during the Tech. This task was accomplished by Tania, our excellent and vivacious translator, and I. Interesting to note that in Russia Gazza Fizza becomes Goolya Figga and Meat and Britney become Phil & Alla, the Russian Pearl Carr and Teddie Johnson of their generation (younger readers may need to refer to the Encyclopaedia Britannica at this point).
Time for tourism has been limited but I have made it to the Bolshoi twice to see Mussorgski’s mighty operas Khovanschina and Boris Godunov. The glorious 7 tiered auditorium and 160 odd Russian chorus belting out my favourite operas makes the whole trip worthwhile. It may be heretical to say this but who needs Rock & Roll.
Moscow Diary 3
Exactly 3 weeks in and progress is slow and steady. Sadly all the scenery was not delivered on the day directed by our esteemed producer but it has been coming in fits and starts. Some of it is excellent, some of it is OK and some of it is gobsmackinzitpickingfuckinshite. Best is the Heartbreak/Wasteland Truck which, after 2 days attention from some decent painters looks the business. The Wasteland side has looks nothing like the Australian version but has an energy all of it’s own. The Bar and the Ga Ga Statues are also excellent. The booby prizes go to the small van, which looks as though my 5 year old daughter and her class mates have pooled their stocks of Play-Doh and sculpted a psychedelic dodgem car, and the Wasteland Hanging which could be a Forest Glade in Les Sylphides. Both are for the tip!
But does the lift work? Do the Ga Ga Treads and the Killer Queen Throne slip gracefully up and down stage? In your dreams!
Sound and Video are in reasonable shape. Lighting would also be in good shape were it not for the Generator. Don’t mention the war! Don’t mention the generator! This was the instruction given to Ian, our Production Electrician, by Mr Baranov in a rare moment of exasperation. However the generator crisis dribbles on from day to day. We have known for 6 months that we need a generator and here we are days behind schedule and still we can’t turn the rig on. Eventually a generator has been found in Moscow, but not the cable to connect it to the theatre. When the cable did turn up there was a problem with the connection which resulted in a bizarre moment at last night’s 7 o clock meeting when Rubin, the local chief electrician, asked Ian if he had lots of black PVC tape with him. Ian asked why. Rubin said that they were going to make a temporary connection in the Mains room which they were proposing to insulate with PVC tape. A 300 amp connection! Bloody Norah!
There are many mysteries here at the Estrada which remain to be unravelled.
Who cleans the stage is one of them. The crew don’t do it, but there is a lady in a green pinny who pops on stage now and then, surveys the carnage for a few moments, nervously sweeps a few square feet in the US corner and then scuttles away. We have christened this lady Beryl. But even the Beryls of this world have their day in the sun. A few days ago Mr Baranov arrived at the theatre and decreed that, in honour of Jim, Brian and Roger’s visit, we should all stop what we were doing and clear the stage completely so that Beryl could vacuum & mop. There was more than an air of triumphalism in the swing of Beryl’s mop.
Another mystery is the identity and role of three men who arrive fairly early (by Russian standards), build themselves a little lean-to shelter out of old scraps of ply in the scene dock, and then play backgammon until 3.00pm when they leave. None of our contractors or the theatre lay claim to them.
The problem of who our stage manager is to be was confirmed in a curious way the other day. Mr Baranov has nominated a chap called Sergei who has 25 years experience in the theatre. What he spent these 25 years doing remains unclear. I have expressed my doubts about this appointment. I personally wouldn’t book this guy to manage a troupe of performing goldfish. Anyway I was in the SL scene dock discussing the responsibilities of a stage manager with this Sergei via our talented and charming interpreter Tania, (keeping our voices down so as not to disturb the backgammon players) when we were approached by the eldest member of the theatre staff, the one with the red arm band who does bugger all. He told us a curious tale from long ago of a local stage manager of Mongolian descent named Kur-Li, who, on his deathbed, decreed that his clipboard should be concealed within the very fabric of the building until someone sufficiently worthy to carry it should come along. At that very moment I felt the floor beneath my feet begin to vibrate, the fluorescent tubes overhead began to flicker, cracks appeared in the wall in front of us, chunks of masonry fell away to bounce unconvincingly on the floor. And there within the wall, bathed in a golden light was a clipboard, the clipboard of Kur-Li. Sergei stepped forward unhesitatingly and took it in both hands.He is the ‘Chosen One’.He turned to me, his eyes glowing with an inner fire, he looked down at the clipboard and said “What is it? What do I do with it?” I sighed and went back onstage to watch paint dry.
Our tiny theatrical expat community has doubled in size with the arrival of Bruce Ramus, Richard Sharratt, Ben Milton & Smasher. We are all looking forward to the tech rehearsal period with some anticipation. Rarely in the history of musical theatre have so many factors been stacked on the side of chaos and mayhem. We have our stage manager, ‘The Chosen One’, we have our 2 show callers (2??) Ashod, the speed writer, and Julia, beautiful but uncomprehending. We have an entirely green crew, who I gather will not be consistent, anyone may turn up. We will be working with 3 translators, one on the stage ring, one on the lighting ring and one with sound. We have a Russian director and choreographer, neither of whom have done a musical before. And possibly best of all we have a producer who may jump on stage at any moment and organise the scene changes personally. So the stage is set for a humdinger.
The schedule is shot to pieces but no one seems very interested in previews so I guess they get the push.
Traffic habits in Moscow continue to fascinate and terrify. Interestingly there are absolutely no cyclists. We assume that they have all been killed. Moscow is running it’s own experiment in Natural Selection. They are breeding a race of aggressive pot bellied men with big cars and small dicks (sorry, a bit of big car envy crept in there). All the eco friendly caring sharing cycling Nigel Planer look-a-likes have been brutally expunged from the gene pool.
Russian history hangs like grey pall over everything here. The complex of up-market flats of which the Estrada theatre is a part was built in the early 30’s to house high-up Communist party apparatchiks. Locals tell us that not one of the apartments here missed having its inhabitants butchered or exiled at some point in the Terror of the 1930’s and 40’s. Presumably those who survived retired to bungalows on the Black Sea coast with names like ‘Dunmassmurderin’ and ‘Dungulagin’. Mind you after working here for 3 weeks mass murder comes top of my list for things to do on a rainy afternoon.
Moscow Diary 4
We have been here exactly a month and Russia is as exasperating now as the day we got off the plane. We all feel that our responses to normal life have been coarsened by our experiences. This is in part due to the everyday rudeness of your average Russian, they insult each other with regularity and gusto. Waitresses and shop assistants are treated with finger snapping contempt which they are quite capable of returning with interest. Even the most uncontroversial discussions on stage can turn into a shouting match. The worst insult you can hurl is apparently ‘pederast!’ which Mr Baranov frequently uses in his discussions with Yuri Antizersky (Clement Freud look-a-like) on the subject of the late arrival of the scenery. Even Tracey Ransom, who has only been here 3 days coaching our show caller Julia, has started swearing like a trooper.
“……and on the seventh day Sergei Baranov said let there be light!” And on the twelfth day there was light. Gordon Bennett! What a performance getting the generator running. Cables not long enough, wrong size, planning permits etc etc. We’ve known about this for 6 months. The abject failure of Russian technology and planning so far on this project has led us to speculate on how these people managed to put a man in space. We pass a splendid statue of Yuri Gagarin on our way to the theatre and have come to the conclusion that he must either have had a profound death wish or been forced into the space capsule at gunpoint.
But with power to the lighting rig and a couple of days rough programming from Bruce we decided to go straight into a tech with the actors. Finding a crew hasn’t been straightforward. Our stage manager, Sergei, the ‘Chosen One’ was de-selected by Mr Baranov almost immediately and replaced, to our dismay, at one of our knock-about 7.00pm meetings, by Vladimir who is the technical manager for the building. This arrangement lasted for several minutes until after the meeting when Vladimir came to me and said ‘I’ve not agreed this with Baranov. I won’t do it!.’ So we remain consistent, at no point on this production have we had so much as the toenail clippings of a stage management team. What we need is a team of nice, middle class, work ethic driven folks ready to die for the sake of fly Q 22. Sadly we have no one, we have no paperwork from rehearsal, no moves written down, no script revisions, no idea at any given moment who should be playing whom from the innumerable permutations of cast. The crewing has also been a bit bumpy. Four follow spot operators duly presented themselves for a day’s training, three of them took one look at their truss positions and promptly left. They were replaced the next day by more cannon fodder who were bullied into position. The stage crew, who are in part made up of the backgammon players, have also been very flexible in their approach to the job. One of my biggest problems with the running crew has been to convince any of them that being in the building is a necessary part of the rehearsal process. They drift off at any time without so much as a by your leave. Seva, our Golden Boy video operator, has been the worst offender in this respect. Local crew morale has picked up with the arrival of the cast in the theatre, specifically the lady members of the company. The expat WWRY crew here are definitely of the opinion that, from a heterosexual male point of view, this is undoubtedly the best looking Rock You company world-wide. But perhaps we have all been away from her indoorski for too long. As a sage old Master Carpenter once said to me, ‘Ted, once you’ve done a couple of all-nighters they all look like Marilyn Monroe’.
The show is entirely in Russian apart from the last three numbers and it’s fair to say differs in emphasis markedly from the UK version. Sexual politics are somewhere in the Stone Age here so Scaramouche doesn’t get all the good lines and in one of the van scenes sobs uncontrollably and is comforted in manly fashion by Galileo (our no1 Galileo is blessed with what are apparently Georgian good looks, black hair, hook nose and eyebrows that need strimming). All the dialogue scenes seem much longer than normal and are played to the hilt, no gentle ironies or self mockery here, dramatic points are hammered down with all the subtlety of Canadian seal hunters armed with baseball bats. The Van Scene! Our director Dimitri Astrakhan, has boldly taken on the ‘Curse of the Van’ (general readers may want to skip this bit). All of us who have been associated with the production for a while know that the two Van scenes in Act 2 present a scenic challenge in that getting the damn thing on and off stage can be a problem. This difficulty has been solved in Australia & Vegas by having the Van come up on a lift. This was our plan here, but a combination of architectural problems and the bloody minded intransigence of the Estrada management has forced the lift right to the front edge of the stage. Dimitri declared that the scene was unplayable in this position and so we are pushing our Play-Doh dodgem on from DSR. He also worried about the lack of scenic background in Van II and when I said that it was a short scene covering the transition into the Killer Queen Boudoir he replied “No! No! It’s a very complex dramatic scene”. A few minutes later he was at the back of the stalls quoting Brecht at me in broken English, at which point I felt it was probably time for a lie-down.
But for all the problems at last we are under way with a cast on stage, a music dept that is currently missing 50% of it’s cues, the lovely Julia is calling the show in harness with Miss Ransom who doubles as Musical Supervisor on occasion and above all we have a lot of shouting. Russians love to shout and it’s bloody exhausting listening to them all day.
As we progress through the grinding hell of the Tech time for excursions has been limited but a chance conversation with a business Brit in the hotel bar tempted me out after rehearsal one day. He said that he travelled regularly from Kursk Station and that the area around there was distinctly dodgy. Well the opportunity to combine a bit of train spotting with some low life research was catnip to me, so off I went. Sadly the low life bit was about as racy as Dorking though the area is significantly poorer than the affluent area of Moscow where we spend most of our time. There are far fewer vagrants visible here than in London and very little litter and no graffiti. The trains are good though. Russian sleeping cars have a smartly dressed lady attendant standing in every door ready to greet the passengers and there is a smell of coal fires from the stove in each carriage on which a samovar is kept going all day.
Moscow Fashion Note: For those of you planning to make the trip for the Press Night and who want to cut a dash in Moscow Society you should be aware that Mr Baranov is not the only one who wears silly pointy shoes. They all do. One is in serious danger of multiple ankle high stab wounds at any moment this city.
Apart from there being no cyclists here, there are also no sandwiches and no whistling. The notion of beetroot and potato on rye has not caught on, not one of the local kiosks or our beloved local supermarket (apparently the most expensive in Moscow) carry a sandwich of any kind. Whistling is traditionally banned in theatres worldwide, but Smasher was sternly told by a policeman to stop whistling while walking across a bridge near our hotel. Overt displays of happiness are frowned on as being improbable.
And finally I must relate a sorry tale which encapsulates all that has made this project the trial it has been. A few nights ago I spotted Mr Baranov and Yuri Antizersky talking at the back of the stalls. They were arguing over a sheet of paper and as I approached they looked more shifty than usual. I could see that they were holding a Russian copy of the prop list. I asked if there was a problem and they said “No! no!” and wandered off. Later I interrogated Yuri and, yes folks, you guessed it, a sizeable chunk of the prop list (including the Yuppie Canes) had just been ordered, 3 days into the tech.
I get a day off from all this jollity when I fly to Munich in a couple of days to check out the Cologne set which is being built there. Onlookers at Munich airport may be surprised to see an Englishman on his hands and knees kissing the tarmac.
Moscow Diary 5
Phew! Made it!
Yes on the 17th Oct 2004 Lazarus walked, water turned to wine and we had a premier that wasn’t half bad. The final preview was described by Bruce Ramus as the “worst Rock You ever”, so the transformation was miraculous. Everything worked, even the Killer Queen Throne lift and rotate which was still being teched an hour before the show. The company gave their all which is a lot and sometimes you may not want it all but you get it anyway. The Russian version is longer and wordier than the UK model but the audience seem to be engaged by the dialogue scenes. Now and then a ripple of applause runs round the house as if to say ‘Good point, well made!’. The opening captions don’t get a laugh even though I am reliably informed by our lovely and talented translator, Tania, that 2045 reads “Ben Elton burnt at stake by religious zealots in Turkmenistan”.
The previews, indeed all the rehearsals, were a shambles with endless permutations of band and cast driving the sound boys demented. And the shouting! Endless, endless shouting.
What does the future hold? Well with no technical or stage management it’s hard to believe that all will go smoothly. Yuri Antizerski explained the Russian approach, which goes along the lines of letting things get into such an appalling state that you have to do something and in the end you just get through. That’s certainly the case with this production.
The Party was held in a huge low ceiling ballroom within the precincts of the Kremlin. It had less atmosphere than the baggage-claim area at Dusseldorf airport (where I am a regular visitor) but there was plenty to drink and eat, and of course Brian, Roger and the company rocking on stage. Excellent.
And the next day we made our escape back to the free world. Never is a rash word to use but until they sell Cornettos in Hell I will steer well clear of Moscow. On the plus side are the Metro, the Bolshoi and hordes of beautiful women in pointy shoes. On the minus side just about everything else.