Oliver Bennett and Vladimir Shcherban Talk HUNCHTHEATRE
Oliver Bennett and Vladimir Shcherban made a splash in 2018 when their new company, HUNCHtheatre, debuted A Hero of Our Time, a smart, stylish adaptation of the classic Russian novel of the same name.
BroadwayWorld reviewer Gary Naylor wrote that the show was "never less than theatrical, never less than compelling, never less than true to its conception", and concluded his review with a request: "More please and soon!".
Bennett and Shcherban just celebrated the first anniversary of their new company with a brief revival of A Hero, but they have so much more in the works: bilingual productions, international touring, and some potentially controversial new shows...
How would you describe A Hero of Our Time?
Oliver Bennett: A sugar rush of intrigue and excitement... is how they described it in Edinburgh. It's a kind of updating of this 19th-century Russian classic by Lermontov, which is not very well known in Britain.
Vladimir Shcherban: For me, personally, it's more than just one more show - it's about a new company, a new partnership. Finally we channeled our relationship, me and Ollie, into a creative project.
A new company, a new collaboration - why did you go for this obscure 19th-century Russian novel?
Oliver: We wanted to introduce it to people who don't know it. I suppose we found it kind of interesting to do something that was a strong voice - an uncompromising, slightly unfashionable attitude now.
It's provocative - you're seeing everything through this one viewpoint, and we wanted to make that as strong as possible to get a reaction from the audience. We wanted to show someone saying "This is what I think about the situation, this is what I think about people, this is what I think about women".
Vladimir: I think there are a few reasons why we made this show. Firstly, we just followed our hunch. It's the main point of our company: discover new names and return neglected names. For Britain, Lermontov is not so famous, so of course we were really proud to introduce him to a wide audience.
And then, well, usually a classic is not so dangerous. We can respect the classic; people always say "It's so deep", even if they have no idea what it's about. But in this case, because the main character is so unusual, even for Russian literature, it's difficult to find a frame for him. And this contradictory character I think is quite interesting.
I've heard people compare A Hero of Our Time to Hamilton - that they're both historical and modern at the same time. Is that accurate?
Vladimir: I haven't seen it, actually.
Oliver: I haven't seen it either.
Vladimir: I don't think we can compare our financial situation, but if they put us on the same level, it's a glimmer of hope - finally, we'll make some money! It's a good option, maybe, for people who want to see Hamilton.
Oliver: I suppose the sort of respect and disrespect for the classics is a good thing. We always think the past is slow, but the past is really fast. We don't need theatre to be slow - audiences' brains work really fast, so theatre has to be even faster.
Vladimir: The classic, high-level literature is always modern and fast.
Oliver: If you read the text again now, it reads faster and stronger and more modern than most modern novels.
Do you have any future plans for this show?
Oliver: I think our one-year anniversary is exactly today, right?
Vladimir: Yeah, yeah, today!
Oliver: Well, we're going to Russia on Saturday.
Vladimir: We've performed it in Edinburgh, at the Arcola, and now it's like a new step for this show. We were invited by this quite famous Soviet/Russian director Adolf Shapiro, who's now the artistic director of the Chekhov Festival, the biggest theatre festival in Russia. We are very excited to introduce Lermontov to Russia!
Then, at the beginning of June, we are going to Cologne, Germany. It's like a new level, a new step for this show, and we are really proud.
And you guys have another project in the works, right?
Oliver: We did one preview of a new show, a collaboration with another company, Stage RC, of a play about the Salisbury Novichok attack last year called To See Salisbury.
Vladimir: We're working with a text by Victor Shenderovich, who is a famous Russian TV presenter. He used to host this sort of Muppet Show-type programme, a political satire. Now he's kind of banned in Russia, so he's here.
When we saw the script, we were surprised that no one had written a play about it already. It seems like in Britain, every second person is a playwright. What [Shenderovich] did is really funny - he made a connection with Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which is also about two people who are sent to kill someone.
Oliver: It's imaginative!
Vladimir: It starts from this Russian-British conflict, this adventure, let's say, but finally it turns to identity and fake news, which is a problem in all countries. In Russia, in Britain, you can't understand what is true and what is a lie.
Oliver: Even the people in the situation don't know the truth. Even the people who are doing the crimes don't know what they're doing or why they're doing it. Even their bosses don't know. That's sort of the conceit of the show.
Vladimir: It was a really interesting experience for me because, as I mentioned, this is a co-production with Stage RC, who work usually with Russian theatre in London. So we decided to create two shows: one in Russian and one in English.
Oliver: The Russian version is actually going around America in a few weeks, and then the English version we're doing at my old school, RADA, at their main theatre, from 27 June to 6 July.
But we have also have a new project that we're really excited about! Our company is about this cultural exchange between England and the rest of Europe, so we want to do something about London life. Just by circumstance we happened upon this text - it found us, basically - which is the real life experiences of an ambulance driver in East London.
We completely fell in love with this text. Really interesting episodes, vignettes about life in London. We're starting to make a theatrical version of this now. It shows life, health, disease, society, death through these people on the edge of society. What's that character in Greek mythology that's allowed to cross the river of death?
Vladimir: And, again, we're following our hunch. It's an interesting story, how this text found us. The author watched our show, A Hero, and found Oliver.
Oliver: I got this email months afterwards, and he said, "Can I send something to you? What's your home address?" and I was like "Yeah". And then then the next day the book was put through my mailbox.
Vladimir: It's a small, absolutely fantastic book. We would like to do this at Edinburgh.
You mean this year?
Vladimir: Yeah, can you imagine? It's such a beautiful story. An ambulance driver, they always meet other people.
Do you have any plans to bring that abroad as well?
Vladimir: Yeah yeah, I think that could be interesting! A few months ago, we just launched our department in Belarus, and we've had some requests from Berlin. All the people just love our ideas, and they said, "Can we just open the same theatre, with the same title, HUNCH Theatre?" and we said "Well, it's a good idea..."