The theatre project NePRIKASAYEMIYE (UnTOUCHABLES), created by the renowned Russian stage director Mikhail Patlasov, recently held its fourth performance at the New Stage of the Alexandrinsky Theatre, drawing attention to the uncomfortable and excruciating truth about the lives of the homeless
A hushed audience gathers in the backyard of a theatre. There are no costumes or decorations, and no theatre curtain. Suddenly, a group of homeless people takes to the floor and begins speaking to the public. This certainly doesn’t sound like your usual play at the Alexandrinsky Theatre. That’s because there’s nothing usual about it, nor the message it aims to convey.
Earlier this month, the New Stage of the Alexandrinsky Theatre hosted the documentary theatre play NePRIKASAYEMIYE (UnTOUCHABLES), a performance that discloses the struggles of the homeless. With a cast composed of professional actors and homeless people, the play exposes the reality of life on the streets of St Petersburg and tells each individual story with great attention and care. The creator himself points out that it’s no ordinary play, but a performance reading, where the homeless exchange places with professional actors and stand in front of the audience as they are, with their bare stories. Throughout the play, the actors debate the stigmas surrounding the lives of the homeless and the public actively participates in the discussion and replies to the questions posed by the actors.
Not only does art imitate life in the play, but it takes life to the very extreme. According to Patlasov, “the most unique experience is not a whim or a figment of the imagination, but something that was actually lived through. Real, bare life is much more appealing, unexpectable, and capricious than any writer’s fiction. All of us must admit that happy endings do not happen that often.”
The director set three goals for the play: socialisation of the homeless, socialisation of the spectator, and socialisation of the artist. This particular performance at the Alexandrinsky Theatre was focused on the latter: the actors stepped away from the main stage and channelled the stories of their characters while sitting by their side. The play itself included an array of discussions and conversations between the storytellers and the public, who were encouraged to participate in the debate. The plot was based on the life stories of the homeless divided into skits, which were read out by both the actors and the homeless participants themselves. As the audience gathered in the backyard of the theatre, the actors themselves sat above, on a perch on the building, from where they presented the story of every character, while the homeless actors would step down to the public to share their tales. The goal was to challenge the stereotypes about homeless people and to demonstrate that these people are not that different from any other—they are also human beings with issues, struggles, and dreams, who deserve kindness and understanding.
The location of the performance was not an accident: by making the audience stand outside the theatre, spectators were immersed in the daily conditions of homeless people—the freezing cold of outdoors St Petersburg. Previous locations for the play followed a similar logic and included the dilapidated Annenkirche Church, the backyard of the Feodorovsky Cathedral, and the wide open space of Palace Square. The dark of the night, cold blasts of wind, blurry animation on the theatre wall, and blinding lights of the projectors all contributed to a sense of painful realism. Despite these challenging conditions, the public stayed until the end of the play and didn’t leave—listening to the raw stories and participating in the discussion.
Among the topics covered were perceptions of the homeless as a walking disease (according to the actors, the staff of the theatre refused to hand the microphones to the homeless people, based on the belief that “they might have tuberculosis or something worse”), the responsibility of the artists before their characters, and what sort of assistance might actually make a difference for the homeless. The play debated these viewpoints, and showed that one doesn’t necessarily have to be homeless to have particular illnesses, and that sometimes giving money or food to beggars may not contribute to solving their problems altogether. Representatives of the Druzya na Ulitse (Friends on the Street) organisation were in the audience and confessed that people with no roof over their heads often simply need moral support and a bit of kindness, which is sometimes more important than an occasional cup of coffee from a stranger.
The play involved many extraordinary characters, however, two stood out in particular. The first was Boris Uzelevky, a 60-year-old philologist and philosopher, who had written a literary article about his discovery of the polyphonic method in Bulgakov’s works, which received a muted response from the academic community. Possessing an uncanny similarity to Karl Marx, he surprised the audience with the eloquence of his speech and the humbleness of his manners; it seemed shocking that such a man could have become homeless. Another participant was Yasha Yablochnik, who was raped in an orphanage and was left on the streets. Thanks to his participation in the play, the police have started an investigation and have already identified seven suspects linked to the crime.