We are the Hymalayas: Lisa chats with Mark Langham (Theatre interview)
We are the Himalayas
Brave New Word Theatre Company
July 3 – 21. You can grab your tickets here.
What a great joy for this little commie gen X’er to be able to legitimately dip into the world of Communist Russia to prepare questions for We are The Himalayas! I was able to indulge in several hours reading up on the most remarkable Anna Larina and those of her ilk who fought against the oppressive Stalinist regime for the true and original principles of communism. I am very lucky I can live in a country where I can declare on a blog that ‘I miss communism, and socialism’ and be understood as something other than a secret Russian spy infiltrating Western social media for my own gains. Interestingly, communism is now long gone (Reganomics rules the Chinese peasantry) and socialism is all but lost, but Russia continue to infiltrate and attempt to control us, and dangerous regimes keep trying to force ‘confessions’ of some kind of random guilt out of us in the name of free speech. As I write this, hundreds of Australians are giving money to Israel Folau so that he can vilify and hate gay folk in public in the name of free speech. The bible is far stricter on those that cheat their taxes or greedily hold onto money, but I didn’t see any of them mentioned in his post. Communism has become a dirty word, but its demise hasn’t stopped any of the crimes we claim are inherent in its political culture. It is this notion of oppression that Mark Langham seeks to address in his play We are the Himalayas, a timely examination of oppression in the life of Anna Larina. Brave New Word theatre company have brought this Patrick White Award short listed play to the Sydney stages, and we in Sydney are fortunate enough to get a chance to dip into one of my favourite topics for the production run. The Brave New Word website has this to say about the play:
“I know you’re scared. You damn well should be… this place is dreadful.”
Anna Larina was known and renowned as the wife of one of the architects of the Russian Revolution, Nikolai Bukharin. With his downfall and execution, she was persecuted for twenty years, separated from her family, and spent her prime years in a succession of gulags.
Witnessing both the rise of the Revolution, and purges it conducted, she lived both sides of the hypocrisy of Stalin’s rule. She was loved as the partner of the golden child of the Revolution, and then condemned as the partner of a traitor. Through her, we see the very human cost of ideology, and the unimaginable triumph of the human spiritin the face of the hellish machine determined to subdue it.
The extraordinary story of Anna Larina. Punished for being a wife.
I was lucky enough to have a chance to chat to Mark Langham about his play, and he was kind enough to sift through my leftist questioning and speak eloquently about his play. Read on below, and make sure you get to the play.
LT: Anna Larina’s ability to tell a certain story, becomes an essential and important life’s work. Without her, Nikolai Bukharin would go down in history as a traitor. In an age when we don’t believe anything we read, does ‘setting the story straight’ contain any power?
ML: For us, in 2019, setting the story straight has limited power. Just post a tweet, something innocent about puppies or snow, and watch the conspiracy theorists and contrarians swarm like starving mosquitoes. No one sets anything straight, they just get more RT’s. Rehabilitation was a real thing in Soviet times, however, and for Anna it was more than just bringing Bukharin back to good graces, it was one of the major driving forces in keeping her alive when she was in the camps. To see him acknowledged as an important figure and, by contrast, seeing those who condemned him condemned themselves, was enormous motivation for her.
LT: Anna Larina tells a historical story that questions the political structures own historical narrative. Playwrights work predominately in an ephemeral medium that disappears. Do you sense an affinity between Anna’s work trying to correct a stated injustice and the playwrights drive to tell stories that reveal something previously hidden?
ML: Completely. Telling a story that most people already know is relatively pointless. We all like to believe that we have an insight or a perspective that hasn’t been aired before.
LT: All of us engaged with independent theatre in Sydney are a product of the bourgeoisie, which is inherently anti-peasantry. How do you feel telling Anna’s story given she was part of a revolution of the working class?
ML: I’m not sure I accept the premise. Storytelling is a peasant art/craft. Because I get to do it with a laptop rather than around a campfire doesn’t make it inherently bourgeois. Anna was, if it’s not too much of a contradiction, revolutionary royalty. Her father was a mentor to Lenin and, from a young age, she was exposed to the “stars” of Soviet life: Stalin, Trotsky and, of course, Bukharin. I took the view that her story was one of endurance and resolve. I hope those qualities are their own class.
LT: What compels you to tell the story of a Russian Bolshevik and what relevance does that have for Australia in 2019?
ML: Honestly, why I’m drawn to these Russian stories (this is my 2nd play about the Soviet era) is a mystery to me. I’ve always been fascinated by the human face of enormous tragedies but I have no firm answer as to why I go there! There is that terrifying quote that is something like: “those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” Yes. The lessons of any system that seeks to control and de-humanise individuals is relevant to our lives in 2019 Australia.
LT: You are a male writer, telling the story of a Russian woman, who is famous for telling the story of her revolutionary husband. How does a writer like yourself establish a truth from which to speak when so much of Anna’s story is about narrative distortion?
ML: I was very, very concerned about being a man writing a largely female narrative. I sought advice from women in theatre whose opinion I trust and this question was at the forefront of everything I did in the play. I can only hope it worked. Is Anna’s story true? Essentially, I came to the conclusion that I am telling Anna’s story and not recording history. I chose to write this play. I’m absolutely sure there are other plays that may take a different slant. If my past record is anything to go by, I might even write a couple of them myself.