Vol.17 No.1, 1996, Spring/ Printemps

GUY SPRUNG with RITA MUCH. Hot Ice: Shakespeare in Moscow, A Director's Diary. Winnipeg: Blizzard Publishing, 1991. 151 pp. illus. $15.95 paper.


Merry and tragical? Tedious and brief?
That is hot ice and wondrous strange snow.
How shall we find the concord of this discord?
(Theseus, Midsummer Night's Dream. Act V, scene i)

This quotation appears on the forepage of Canadian director Guy Sprung's journal Hot Ice: Shakespeare in Moscow. Ironically, while Sprung uses Theseus's queries as a commentary on the enigmatic nature of his experience when directing a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at Moscow's Pushkin Theatre in 1990, this quotation also encapsulates the reader's dilemma in assessing Sprung's text. Written in engaging colloquial prose, Hot Ice is sub-titled "A Director's Diary"; yet, this text is neither the simple record of observation and experience one finds in Sir Peter Hall's diary of his years at the British National Theatre, nor is it the systematic and scientific log found in Konstantin Stanislavsky's many journals. Rather Hot Ice is a carefully constructed collage of genre: a combination of travel journal, personal memoir, autobiography, manifesto and director's notebook.

Divided into six sections, the chapter headings derive their titles from the phases of a hockey game. It is Sprung's conviction that good theatre embodies the same visceral appeal as good hockey. Considering the frequency with which he has been quoted making this analogy, and in light of the chapter divisions in this text, it appears that Sprung extends this metaphor to all creative endeavour. Whatever the relative appeal of hockey as a spectator event may be, few can debate that the correlation between hockey and theatre evolves from a uniquely Canadian ethos, and in the final analysis, despite the Russian subject matter of this journal, it is the Canadian sub-text, the discourse between Canada's and Russia's theatre practice which makes this book of importance to the student of Canadian theatre. It is Sprung's belief that economic and social upheaval in both countries warrants a careful structuring and nurturing of artistic organizations.

However, a first reading of Hot Ice can be confusing due to the sheer scope of its panorama, five countries and three continents, and the variety of narrative styles employed which range from the highly subjective and emotional undertones of the diarist to the cool balanced voice of the theatre historian and social analyst. The first chapter titled "The Warm-up," serves as an introduction and covers a variety of topics: Sprung's first encounters with Russian theatre while on a visit in 1985, the events which culminated in his offer from Artistic Director Yury Yeremin to direct a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Pushkin Theatre based on his 1987 rappunk style production mounted for the Vancouver Playhouse, and a brief biographical sketch. The chapter also contains Sprung's thoughts on the role of the director and a brief production history of A Midsummer Night's Dream as it relates to his interpretation of the text.

The three chapters or "periods" of Sprung's metaphorical hockey game recount the rehearsal process of the Moscow production in diary format with a relevant quotation from A Midsummer Night's Dream beginning each entry. In addition, these chapters contain Sprung's observations of Soviet society as it experiences the optimism incited during the early days of glasnost and perestroika and the despair which results from lengthening foodlines, inflation, increased crime, and political uncertainty. In addition, the "First Intermission" finds Sprung in England eulogizing the loss of Maurice Colbourne who along with Sprung co-founded the Half Moon Theatre in London's East End during the early '70s and the "Second Intermission" begins with Sprung's account of the events with led to his firing by the Canadian Stage Company and ends with his bicycling through Berlin as the city prepares for unification ceremonies.

As a window on Russian culture, Sprung's observations are as interesting and useful as any analysis of this type can possibly be. Western monitoring of Russian or Soviet theatre is virtually a genre unto itself. Since Oliver Sayler's first documented the achievements of Stanislavsky, Meyerhold, and Alexandr Tairov1 in his 1922 text The Russian Theatre, western critics and theatre practitioners when permitted have made the pilgrimage to Moscow in order to observe and report the progress of a theatrical institution which has played so seminal a role in modern dramatic theory and practice.

The difficulty with this kind of reportage is that the critic can only screen Russian theatre through their own cultural and aesthetic bias. Sprung is aware of this when he claims that "it is impossible to make qualitative comparisons between theatre in Moscow and theatre in Toronto" (p 8); however, he frequently laments the lack of talent in the Pushkin company, and observes that there is a complacency among many Russian actors which has been fed by a repertory system which guarantees life-time employment and watered by political uncertainty. He is also critical of what he perceives to be a lack of interaction between audience and actor in the productions he attends, although he is sympathetic of the improvished conditions that Russian artists are required to work under. Of course, the paradox undermining any unbiased appraisal of Russian culture by Sprung is that he is by profession a director and it is inherent to the director's role that he or she bring a unique aesthetic to their work.

And ultimately, it is the detailed first person record of an important Canadian director's theory and methodology that makes Hot Ice worth the read and of particular importance to those who study Canadian theatre. This kind of primary source is too rare here. Texts of this nature can tell us a great deal about the ideology which shapes theatre in Canada. No doubt, it is Sprung's conviction that theatre should have an energy, a function, and be "desperately important to the spectator" (p viii) which underscored the success of his years as Artistic Director at Toronto Free Theatre in the mid-eighties, as well as his role in the development and interpretation of so many Canadian texts including David Fennario's Balconville, W.O. Mitchell's Back to Beulah, Rick Salutin's Les Canadiens and Anne Chislett's Quiet in the Land.

In the final chapter of Hot Ice, Sprung laments the fact that as a developing Canadian director he had so few mentors because "our record of passing down experience from one generation to the next is lamentable." (p 124) By writing this journal, Sprung has passed the puck to other Canadian directors. Hopefully more of them will take up the challenge to fill this void.


1 Tairov's Kammemi Theatre was renamed the Pushkin Theatre in 1949 after the innovative director was removed from his position by advocates of socialist realism during the Stalin regime.
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