"The sleepers", the new production by M. Ivaškevičius and O. Koršunovas, to open the new hall of LNDT

The first stage of rehearsals of Marius Ivaškevičius’s drama The Sleepers, the upcoming premiere at the Lithuanian National Drama Theatre, is over. The performance, which will premiere in August at the New Hall of the LNDT, is directed by Oskaras Koršunovas, who has recently taken up the post of the theatre’s artistic director, and who has agreed talk about his idea.


Recently, the playwright Marius Ivaškevičius joined you at the Lithuanian National Drama Theatre. Could you expand on your premiere, The Sleepers? How did the idea of the performance evolve?

 Marius once told me about this play. He started by saying that he didn’t intend to write for theatre anymore and talked about The Sleepers. I thought that maybe it was the right thing to do. At that time, the play seemed very strange. He wrote it in 2015. Later I received a phone call from Evgenia Shermeneva, a famous theatre producer, who currently lives in Latvia, and she offered me to stage The Sleepers on Zoom. In September 2020, actors from different countries, an incredibly talented team of personalities, gave a reading of this play. Among them were the famous Liya Akhedzhakova, Guna Zariņa, one of the most interesting Russian actresses Kseniya Rapoport, the theatre shaman Grigorii Gladii, Anna Bogomolova, Anya Chipovskaya, the well-known journalist, writer, and Joseph Brodsky’s former friend Maria Phillimore-Slonim, the satirist and prominent Russian dissident Viktor Shenderovich, and Nikolai Khalezin, the leader of independent Belarusian theatre living in emigration. For a while, the director Kirill Serebrennikov also took part in the rehearsals, but a high-profile political trial at the time forced him to withdraw. During the preparation for the premiere, it became clear that this dystopia by Ivaškevičius was not madness. It is relevant right now, during the lockdown; it speaks about the worlds of the present and the worlds of the future, about where we are heading, and asks whether there is an escape or not. Fundamental questions arise: whether the world can continue to be a democracy in the face of challenges that we are facing, going through the pandemic and the related lockdown regimes. The split of the world into hyper-progressive and radically conservative – all that is very clearly reflected in this play. On top of all this, there is a love story, good humour, philosophy, and plenty of room for visuality in the play.

After the great success of the play at Zoom theatre, seeing the relevance of The Sleepers, and realising that a large number of LNDT actors could take part in this production, I decided to take on this challenge – a huge challenge, to be honest.

After the Zoom premiere in Russia, there were discussions about the feasibility of staging the play in a Russian theatre. There were doubts all around, though. The material would be banned because among all the themes, there is a strong theme of a totalitarian regime reminiscent of present-day Russia.

The direction of The Sleepers is difficult not only ideologically. Like Marius’s all plays, it is first of all a considerable challenge to the director. For example, Expulsion turned out to be an undirectable play just because of the locations; it seemed to be attainable only for a big-budget film. This play is similar to Expulsion, which is set all over Lithuania, in London, in Poland... In The Sleepers, we are facing other challenges related to futuristic ideas that, on the face of it, would demand a budget of Star Wars. Yet you can always find the most unexpected solutions along the theatrical path. You could see the actors’ eyes burning during the first reading.


How would you describe this work? It starts innocently but then gains tremendous impetus and turns into a deeply dystopian work: a future affected by negative influences, the human’s lack of awareness of the ‘products’ they have created, which begin to control them, the levelling of the human, control, rules, the consolidation of power. We could go on with the ‘bouquet’ of dystopian properties, but what would you single out?

 Although I can’t say it’s finished at the moment, there have already been a couple of previews, which made me look at this work in a different way. First of all, there is a lot of irony, postmodern irony in it. Marius Ivaškevičius gracefully ran through the works: Blade Runner (Ridley Scott; 1982), Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve; 2017) or, say, The Fifth Element (Luc Besson; 1997), The Matrix (Andy Wachowski, Larry Wachowski; 1999), and, of course, George Orwell, Gilles Deleuze, and even A Cyborg Manifesto by Donna Haraway. The Sleepers has archetypes typical of future utopias and dystopias. Therefore it’s most interesting. That’s why I watched those films again while directing the play... There is one ‘but’, though: it is deeply political theatre, after all. Globally political, too. The Sleepers is actually about the dangers that are perceptible in the world. Its relevance and resonance transcend local boundaries.

I remember when, after Tartuffe in Avignon (our production doesn’t have the ‘happy end’: the good king who saves the day and restores justice doesn’t arrive), the bewildered French wrote that the production was a warning of the sunset of Europe. In a sense, The Sleepers warns us of the sunset of the world. And it is extremely interesting. The finale, which I am still thinking about, could be terrifying. The themes this play touches upon – gender, the structure of the new human in general, the cyborg, the perception of a completely different human life and of time – are much unexpected. Also, they haven’t been addressed in Lithuanian theatre yet.

Just like in other plays – and in this one in particular – Marius succeeded in being highly original. On the one hand, as I said, he builds on good trends, but on the other, they become a springboard for the playwright to explore very serious themes. The play is relevant in the context of the pandemic, but this is a temporary thing. We’re all about to be vaccinated here... But the fundamental theme, the essential problem remains: the new world that we will encounter, that is unknowable to us, that will transform us into very different people. In The Sleepers, this problem remains, and this is the most interesting thing. This makes working with it very exciting, and it is extremely disappointing that due to the delayed opening of the New Hall the premiere is postponed to August, which is not a good time for theatre.


After The Seagull in Moscow, The Sleepers will also be a performance of extraordinary size and significance. In terms of its plot, The Sleepers has very poignant links with Chekhov's work. On the other hand, there are many Shakespearean connotations.

 It’s curious, because in addition to the peculiar environment, the human futurism, the play encompasses something fundamental, fundamentally classic... For example, there are also three sisters, but in a different time, a different century. Basically, the play shows us that we are already different. It is not in a hundred years that we will be completely different, but we are different now, we just don’t want to admit it. There is a lot of debate about this at present. There are the conservative and the progressive parts of society... In the play, all this is reflected in a grotesque and surreal way. At the same time, it is relevant to the clash of worldviews that is now taking place in Lithuania. We can see the barricades under fire on both sides after the ‘The Family Defence March’ (The Family Defence March was held in May 2021 in Vingis Park, Vilnius. It attracted people from across Lithuania who protested against current developments they perceived as a threat to the institution of traditional family and against LGBT+ rights). All our problems, the fragments of the worldviews at war that reflect the global problems are in this play. That’s why I hope it will be an audience-friendly performance. I also find it important that theatre is democratic in every sense, that it consolidates a very diverse audience.


What gives rise to unpredictable things in theatre?

 It’s hard to say where these unpredictable things come from, but one thing is obvious: if unpredictable things don’t happen in theatre, theatre itself doesn’t happen.


Understandably, all directors desire to work with only the ‘very best’ actors, but I wonder about the success of ‘heating up’ the actors in The Sleepers.

In The Sleepers, all the actors succumbed to this dystopia, this playfulness, and these strange things. For me, however, the greatest adventure, the event that I haven’t experienced in theatre with actors for a long time was Aistė Zabotkaitė and her Maya. In general, the way she creates, the way she works… You see how sometimes one actor can raise the bar for others. I can say the same about Vytautas Anužis, Nelė Savičenko, Arūnas Sakalauskas, of course. The cast includes several generations of my former students: Kamilė Petruškevičiūtė and Kęstutis Cicėnas, who have been creative and successful in theatre for some time, and Alvydė Pikturnaitė, who is graduating this year. I also enjoy working with other actors of the LNDT with whom we have worked on numerous occasions: Algirdas Dainavičius, Vitalija Mockevičiūtė, Elzė Gudavičiūtė, Rimantė Valiukaitė, Toma Vaškevičiūtė, and Miglė Polikevičiūtė.


How do you create the rhythm of this performance when the material is so polyphonic and there are so many themes?

That’s my ‘hobby horse’. My directing is always multi-layered and polyphonic. That’s why I often direct Shakespeare, and even ‘flat’ material becomes multi-layered and polyphonic in my hands.


How do you provoke the actors into mini-improvisations, because the audience find it interesting to watch actors who can achieve the goal of the character only through their shared perception?

I have one very important talent: giving people faith in themselves.


What kind of a journey do you offer to an actor? When does he or she become a character?

If early in my career I used to ‘knead’ the actors and demand that they create a very vivid character, then the further I go, the less interesting this path is to me. The further I go, the more I want the actors to just be themselves on stage. On the other hand, it’s a methodology that I’m developing, and it started with the trilogy of Hamlet, The Lower Depths and The Seagull. The Seagull, in particular. Also, The Seagull at the Moscow Art Theatre. Where the actors on stage are like schizophrenics: they are both themselves and the characters. And neither the actors nor the audience can tell the difference. This is the most interesting thing for me. Incidentally, Patrice Pavis, the famous French theatre scholar, noticed this when he wrote and spoke about the model of the new actor. When he saw The Lower Depths and The Seagull, that was what he talked about. I think a modern actor must be a kind of a schizophrenic. He can’t be just him, just as he can’t be just a character.


Astrid’s character says, ‘Our shared, global world has never been more shared and global.’ Is it easy for you as an artist to protect yourself as an individual from the globalism that is constantly invading us?

I’m not protecting myself against it; I’m trying to understand it. To me, it’s neither good nor evil. The world is like this. A modern artist cannot think non-globally.


Political themes abound in this work. One of them is ‘Free citizens mean a weak state. A strong state is where a herd of slaves is!’ Is it a paradox?

This is the phrase of Peti, who is on the verge of madness. He speaks his ‘truths’ and suddenly becomes a ‘prophet’. And there are so many of such ‘prophets’ now. The kind of the nonsense babblers who, incidentally, sometimes make profound insights in their babble.


The work culminates with the statement that a coma is better than war. Will The Sleepers be a warning or a prognosis that the world is coming to an end, that it has grown decrepit?

Theatre has been a warning since Antiquity. What I like about this performance is that there is a very strong sense of warning in it. The moment of warning!


Have a great premiere!