Traditional Azerbaijani theatre displays have their roots in daily-activity, daily-life and festivities including wedding traditions. Azerbaijani people believe that it is important to enact representations their philosophy and culture, thus they often portray traditional ceremonies, such as “Sayachy”, “Novruz”, and “Gevsech”. These usually encompass theatrical elements such as choruses and dances, familiar characters and narrative.
You can trace structured theatre productions in their prominence to the late 19th century in Azerbaijan’s society. Mirza Fatali Akhundov being the first major Azerbaijani playwright of the era. Akhundov was also a well-known philosopher before this period and wrote the first Azerbaijani comedy which is still well loved today. Plays and comedies during this era were still largely based on Azerbaijani life, the characters taking inspiration from Azerbaijani traditions, language and cultural tendencies.
The National Azerbaijani Theatre originated in the mid 19th century, by aforementioned Mirza Fatali Akhundov; the first Azerbaijani playwright, a prominent thinker and philosopher. According to records, the theatre was primarily realised so that he could show his famous comedy piece. Professional ‘spectacles’ became common around the same time.
The National Theatre of Azerbaijan was marked by its realism and connection with the working masses. It’s repertoire involved small ethical shows (‘fars’) such as “Kosa-Kosa”, “Tapdiq choban” (“The Foundling Shepherd”) and “Tenbel Qardash” (“Lazy Brother”, a three-act comedy). These became very popular. These performances are notable for their optimism. They mainly reflect everyday life and agriculture. The comedy developed into satire, humorously criticising the defects in people’s work and life.
The first professional spectacle in the Azerbaijani language was displayed on March 23, 1873. Students of the ‘Real School’ played the “Vizier of Lankaran Khanate”; a play by M.F.Akhundov on the stage of Baku Public Assembly.
The second spectacle, “Haji Gara” (Miser’s adventures); another comedy by M.F.Akhundov was displayed in the hall of Baku Public Assembly, on April 17, 1873.
However, the organisation of these professional spectacles stopped shortly after creators disbanded the group. Spectacles arose again later in Susha, where the ‘Real School’ was opened in 1881. During school summer holidays, students would put on vocal concerts at a music school.
19th Century Avant Garde Theatre
The 19th century theatre in Azerbaijan can be described as ‘cutting edge’. Consequently, on one occasion in the Theatre of Susha, a play had to be disbanded for its content: In 1982 H.Vazirov.’s “Marrying – Not Slaking The Thirst” was broken up by religious spectators in the audience who thought the display was crass. The actors had to escape from the back of the theatre. It wasn’t until 1895 that the play was recognised for its success with general members of the public and displayed in public.
Another notable performance by H.Vazirov , was in 1904, when amateurs staged a version of ‘Othello’ by Shakespeare. Vazirov was both a translator and performer in the piece.
20th Century Theatre
At the cusp of the fall of the Azerbaijani years of independence (1918 – 1920), a United State Theatre including Azerbaijani, Russian and Armenian drama and opera theatres was created. By 1922, the Azerbaijani drama troupe was transformed into the Academic Drama Theatre. Later, in 1923, a Russian satire-agitation theatre, transformed into the Baku Labor Theatre which specialised in displaying short plays, parodies and the everyday. This movement catalysed contemporary theatre of the time.
Plays continued to develop greatly and at speed throughout the 20th century within Azerbaijan. This growth was largely influenced by the soviet period when Azerbaijani theatres were nationalised. This also meant that after establishment of this Soviet power theatrical subjects were also controlled by the government and many creatives at this time were unfortunately forced into the armed forces.
As time went on plays began to focus on socio-political commentary as well as parody on modern life. Classic literature also began to transform into plays. Pieces such as “The Grad Inquisitor” by Dostoyevski and “Pharmacist” by Chekhov were included in more contemporary Azerbaijani productions.
Today Azerbaijan champions a wide range of expressive arts, which are well received by audiences. Historic institutions continue to exist and flourish, including the Theatre of Opera and Ballet, in Baku and the Theatre of Musical Comedy. In addition, there are also more contemporary theatres aimed at a younger audience including The Young Spectator Theatre and The Puppet Theatre.
Historically, the first form of musical theatre within Azerbaijan was not a fully-fledged 2 act production, but rather poems performed as one scenic ‘Brechtian style’ plays on a stage such as “Leyli and Majnun” by Fuzûlî. This particular show was actually later performed as a form of opera, from this point forward (1918) more musicals and operas were performed from varying genres such as dramas and comedies like ‘Husband and Wife’. This musical theatre is not the type that we would associate with Western musicals, and reflected themes from traditional theatre of the everyday life of the Azerbaijani.
In 2001 Azerbaijan saw its first Broadway inspired musical take centre stage in Baku. Although vastly familiar with the international theatre scene at this point in time, Azerbaijan had yet to see a musical transfer from Broadway to one of its theatres. In 2001 the American classic ‘West Side Story’ was introduced to Baku’s ‘Opera Studio Hall’ in collaboration with ‘Porgy and Bess’ an Azerbaijani work. Although only extracts were performed from the two, this original fusion was a first. It saw Azerbaijan’s cultural musical theatre merge with a typical western musical phenomenon.
As with their culture of theatrical comedy playwriting, Azerbaijani’s can have a unique take on how musical theatre should play out. One particular musical theatre piece of Azerbaijani origin is a piece which was performed in London’s Union Theatre in Summer 2018.
Spotlight On: ‘Midnight’ – Original Playwrite ‘Elchin’
‘Midnight: A new musical’ is a script worked from famous Azerbaijani playwright Elchin, who has written 100 books and translated them into more than 20 languages in Azerbaijan, these plays include ‘Pages from Life’ and ‘Telescope’. Interestingly Elchin was also the deputy prime minister of Azerbaijan at one point, which can be seen as prevalent in the political themes of this work.
Midnight tells the story of a regular ‘loving’ couple living through soviet controlled Azerbaijan, they are portrayed as rather regular members of the regime, often listening to black market music but respecting the ‘Stalin’ leadership as they either somewhat believe it or fear it. A dark musical comedy, which is provoking of its audience as much as of its characters and clever in its portrayal of evil in the terms of what is right and what is wrong.
The musical progresses through song and dramatic devices to provide a confusing and twisted tale which concerns the true cost of blindly following a dictatorship and the decisions and isolation it can cause. The music itself provides a true connection to the characters and their lives ranging from Soviet Russian toned music, to tangos and Charleston’s. It provides the viewer a journey through how other societies have such an impact on Azerbaijan’s identity during soviet times.
The bars, chorus and lyrics of the songs themselves also provide dramatic integrity striking change within the audience’s emotions and feelings towards developments in the story at the exact right times, often haunting in many senses due to the context of the situation. The instrumentals within the production are also something which the show conveys expertly having characters play them on stage creating a fully immersive experience and the sense that the main cast are not alone in their endeavours , and rather are surrounded by ghosts of the past.
The further addition of the small cast consisting of 3 major characters and an ensemble of 5 dressed in dusty military uniform and the small single room set emphasises further the isolated lives those living in soviet Azerbaijan may experience.
Overall the musical creates a valued experience to those outside of Azerbaijan as to what life may have been like in the soviet whilst providing high end entertainment which consists of a wonderful soundtrack and premise.
Picture Credit – Lidia Crisafulli
To read more reviews of ‘Midnight’, visit ‘Music Theatre Review’: http://musicaltheatrereview.com/midnight-union-theatre/
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