Silenced Women, a tribute to Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941) and Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966) at Sanders Theatre last Wednesday, treated the work of these two great Russian poets with complexity and power. Acclaimed English and Russian actresses Claire Bloom and Alla Demidova and soprano Anna Steiger all gave decidedly different interpretations of the poems, and for once, the contrast between East and West was constructive and original, highlighting the differences in dramatic interpretation between the two culture rather than forcing them to conform to one another.
The evening was divided into two acts, the first featuring works by Tsvetaeva and the second featuring works by Akhmatova. The otherwise random selections of the poems related to periods in the poet's lives, rather than to periods in their literary development. Before each reading, Bloom would provide some historical context, explaining connections between events in the poet's lives and the poems. This information gave a certain degree of coherence to the evening. More importantly, it added a personal dimension to the words of the poets, tying the emotions evoked to the physical reality behind them. The specific events recounted in these explanations not only provided insights into Tsvetaeva and Akhmatova as individuals, but they also served to place their writings within a more general Russian setting--many of their contemporaries shared similar experiences.
After the brief contextualization, Bloom would read the poems in translation. Not trying to play the role of a Russian poet, she interpreted the poems in a uniquely English manner. Her crisp, not exceptionally emotional delivery avoided the heavy tragedy of a Russian interpretation; her tone seemed more melancholic than anything else. She even added humor and irony to her reading of Tsvetaeva's "An Attempt at Jealousy." By offering an Anglicized version of the poems, she gave an American audience the opportunity to relate to the poetry on its own cultural terms, not simply as outsiders to the literary products of a foreign culture.
Demidova followed Bloom with readings in the original Russian. Her deep, emotion-filled voice seemed to epitomize what a Russian reading (of love poetry, especially) would be like. Her low voice held the Russian words still, captivating even an audience ignorant of the actual words. Her renditions were more violent and tempestuous, more bitter than Bloom's and concentrated more on the deeprooted tragedy of the poems. She was at her best when she performed a dramatic monologue from Phadra by Tsvetaeva, sustaining an intensity indicative of her formidable acting talents.
At various times in the program, Steiger took Demidova's place to give a musical response to Bloom's readings. The musical settings by three Russian composers showed that straight reading is not the only way to interpret these works. They also made for an interesting break. Steiger performed well, expressing a clarity in song that paralleled Bloom's delivery.
Despite differing interpretations of the poetry, there was a continuity to the evening in the constant emphasis on personal hardship. All three performers dressed entirely in black without a hint of bright color to lighten up their outfits, and the historical descriptions made real the tragedy behind the poets' lives. Tsvetaeva's daughter and husband were both arrested by the Soviet authorities in the late 1930s, and in 1941 she hanged herself. Akhmatova's son was arrested three separate times; her husband was shot by the Bolsheviks; and her lover Nikolai Punin died in a labor camp.
The final poem, the lengthy "Requiem" touched on the title of the evening's performance. Bloom told the audience that this moving poem was preserved in the memory of women for 25 years before being written down. "Requiem" spoke of the silence of the hundreds of women waiting in line behind closed gates to see their sons. That it was read last Wednesday was clear evidence that the voices of silenced women were finally ringing out.