If you want to understand modern Russia – or modern life in general – consider Mikhail Durnenkov’s The War Has Not Yet Started. Crackling with wit and anxiety, casual in how it portrays horror, the play evokes the same kind of dread I experience when I read Donald Trump’s tweets – whether they threaten war with North Korea or taunt the courts and the free press. It’s the same cold feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you ask yourself, “Who’s flying this plane?” and no obvious or comforting answer is forthcoming.
On the surface, the 12 parables that make up the play are distinctly Russian, focusing on everything from the angry debate over the value of street protests to the constant threat of terror attacks, from Russia’s undeclared war with Ukraine to the awful psychological effects of propaganda on state television. Yet Durnenkov’s characters are also universal in their shimmering frailties and their tendency to betray one another and, ultimately, themselves.
The fabric that holds society and family together is shown by Durnenkov to be gossamer and close to ripping. It’s not just a country on the brink of war here; it’s every individual, and the violent spark can arise from any random interaction. The characters are like pieces of flint, striking against each other, getting closer and closer to a point of no return.
Durnenkov was born in the Amur region of Russia and moved to the manufacturing city of Tolyatti in 1995. He studied engineering and had various jobs – including security guard and television journalist – before turning to acting, and eventually, writing plays. In his early work, Durnenkov was terrifically funny and effortlessly captured the vernacular of modern, urban-dwelling Russians. He and his older brother, Vyacheslav, are a staple of the Russian theatre scene. We’ve crossed paths often, and members of my family have collaborated with both Durnenkovs. One of my favourite early plays of Mikhail’s is The Blue Plumber, which recalls his days of working as a plumber and features everything from rich profanity to haikus and meditations on labour.
Although I am familiar with most of Durnenkov’s well-known plays, such as The Simple Way to Give Up Smoking and Junk, I have to admit that The War Has Not Yet Started caught me off-guard. I’m used to his offhand, nearly weightless language, but I am not quite used to the manic sense of dread his newer work evoked in me. It was written about the feelings one has in the lead-up to a great and terrible war. So how does he see Russia’s future? “In a historical sense, we’re still going around in circles,” he says. “We jump from one circle to the next suddenly, with a push, when the possibilities of the previous circle are completely exhausted. I still see a reserve of stability in the system we’re spinning in. But maybe this stability is deceptive and the system has rotted from the inside out?”
The symbols of that rot are evident in the play whenever it zeroes in on the particulars of daily life: lights flicker, news channels hypnotise us with vividly elaborate lies, online shopping offers a brief escape from the aggression slowly building in society. For Durnenkov, political change is welcome yet foreboding. “I don’t want to spend my life on the sisyphean task of living in a totalitarian system,” he told me. “But a change, a revolution and so on, scares me. Because I have a child, and I’m scared for him, if not for myself.”
The Russian theatre world has never been particularly immune from the grinding mechanisms of power, but this fact is especially clear today, with popular theatre director Kirill Serebrennikov accused of fraud alongside his colleagues, all of them facing the possibility of lengthy sentences in a case that many believe is meant to intimidate the whole of the artistic community. In its own roundabout, chillingly mundane and bureaucratised manner, power in Russia continually sends artists (and most everyone else) a message: that nobody is safe, you can be yanked out of your normal existence at any moment, so it’s best not get too comfortable.
This situation, coupled with the constant threat of armed conflict, is exhausting, and in Durnenkov’s work the exhaustion weighs on people so heavily that it compresses them into pared-down, extreme versions of themselves.
Today, in societies grappling with newfound uncertainty – whether in the guise of Brexit or the election of an erratic demagogue to the office of president – the intensity of the characters’ existence will be painfully familiar. The drivers of uncertainty may be political, but, as Durnenkov shows us, what matters most are the chambers of darkness within us that burst open under pressure exerted by current events.
When it feels as if you can’t change the world, all that matters is what you do with your inner darkness. “I’ll remember why we shouldn’t kill him. It’s some … really simple word. It means … It’s a concept … Please, give me a bit of time, and I’ll remember it,” an abused wife tells a lover who is hellbent on getting rid of her awful husband. Will she remember? Will the husband die anyway? Should he die? The dilemma faced by Durnenkov’s character is ultimately one that audience members will have to resolve alone, in quiet moments of contemplation, when they are forced to face themselves.