A Troubled Night on Crocodile Street

‘Crocodile Street’ by blackSKYwhite. Moscow, 2024. Photo by Sonya Grishaeva. Courtesy of Theatre.Doc

Radical Russian theatre company chernoeNEBObeloye (blackSKYwhite) is pushing the boundaries of theatre as a medium, an approach that is bringing it global recognition. Its latest production, ‘Crocodile Street’, is disturbing and timely, and has recently premiered in Moscow.

BlackSKYwhite Theatre rarely performs in Russia, so its current sojourn at Moscow’s Theatre.DOC, where it is staging three productions this season is a treat for local Russian audiences. Founded by director Dmitry Aryupin and actress Marchella Soltan in 1988, blackSKYwhite quickly won international acclaim. A small, independent company, it has already received two awards at the Edinburgh International Festival and since the late 1990s has mainly been touring throughout Europe and Asia rather than Russia where it is less known these days, although the company has been nominated for the Golden Mask three times, the country's top award for the dramatic arts.

Their productions usually feature a lot of music and movement, never quite turning into musicals or dance performances - perhaps more like pantomime with elements of object theatre, props such as a light-emitting cake, old newspapers or an oversized coat which become characters in their own right. In the company's heyday, critics also praised Marchella Soltan, the lead and often the only performer in blackSKYwhite productions, for her extraordinary physical prowess and the almost supernatural flexibility of her body.

The marketing slogan of the duo's most acclaimed production called ‘Bertran’s Toys’, loosely based on the story of a 19th century necrophile, is ‘When Nightmare Becomes Reality’, a motto which could equally apply to their other productions. In ‘M for Magritte’, inspired by the work of the famous Belgian artist, the atmosphere of Surrealist madness thickens as the actress transforms herself into five different characters. Their latest production is a solo show featuring Marchella Soltan, a strange mix of both obscure cultural references and everyday observations. The title,‘Crocodile Street’, refers to a collection of bizarre short stories by Polish writer Bruno Schulz published in 1934 and audience goers are told to read ‘Darkness’ by Lord Byron, before the performance to get them into the mood.

In the performance, Soltan’s movements are repetitive, bordering on the monotonous and with an ear piercing beat, the whole effect puts the audience into a trance like state. This is served up together with the various transformations the protagonist undergoes and, according to the theatre's trademark, there is an inventive use of simple props and dramatic lighting. A hat turns into the head of a freaky reptile. A coat that hides the actress's body in the opening scene, acquires a life of its own, bringing to mind Nikolai Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’ or the tightfitting suit from Anton Chekhov's ‘The Man in a Case’. Both of these classic Russian stories are about an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances, unveiling horrors that can lurk beneath the dull surface of everyday life.

In ‘Crocodile Street’, a reptile-headed monster who turns into an ordinary person, must - and does - face extraordinary circumstances. Yet, these are the kind of circumstances that have become frighteningly familiar for many people in different parts of the world over the past two years. The siren sounds of bombing raids, the pain and agony, the experience re-created on stage seems eerily life-like, almost documentary. Like all the company's productions ‘Crocodile Street’ is intense, yet no more than an average evening spent at home watching the news. Throughout the performance, the nameless protagonist is fighting a never-ending battle with lights that she struggles to put out. Whether this is from malevolence, safety concerns or out of shame is unclear. The conflict between light and shade becomes the main driving force of the play, but, as often happens with this company's productions, the message remains vague. Will darkness win in the end? The performance finishes, but the question remains.

blackSKYwhite. Crocodile Street


Moscow, Russia

11 June, 2024, 8pm

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