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Russian theatre takes on Putin in rare satire

The play,  performed ahead of the 4 March presidential election which Putin won, takes plenty of inspiration from Internet gossip and breaks almost every remaining taboo about the Russian leader’s personal life.  The play, "Berlusputin", is a Russian adaptation of a work by Italian playwright Dario Fo called L’anomalo Bicefalo. It is updated every performance to include the latest news.

The play imagines what might happen if half of former Italian prime minister and Putin buddy Silvio Berlusconi’s brain was transplanted into the Russian strongman’s head after an accident.  True to Fo’s street theatre philosophy, the performance in Moscow at the ground-breaking Teatr.doc house in the centre of the city is very much a work in progress.  People queued in the snow to catch two consecutive performances on Friday in the black-painted cellar theatre known for its hard-hitting political plays.  The tiny and hot theatre was sold-out.
"This play is probably a producer’s dream.  There’s only two roles and crazy interest in the play," said director Varvara Faer.

The play’s absurd plot imagines that Berlusconi has died in an attack and Putin, injured, has been given a transplant of half his brain.  Unexpectedly, he reveals previously unseen liberal tendencies and even "repents" in front of the parliament, but then a Botox overdose has a reverse effect.

A flurry of speculation on the Internet backed up by picture evidence, suggests that Putin (59), underwent cosmetic procedures to reverse the ageing process.  However this had always been denied by aides.  Putin is played by an actor with foam muscles strapped to his chest, while an actress devoutly wraps herself in a headscarf to play his wife Lyudmila, who has got a little too close to her spiritual advisor at a monastery.


"You kept me for 20 years on a short leash," complains Lyudmila. "You tormented me, you always tormented me."
His marriage is another subject of frenzied Internet speculation and Putin has not been seen in public with his wife for months.  His spokesman has insisted this is simply because Putin is very busy.

The theatre’s frank airing of the rumours about Putin’s private life is a bold move in Russia, where state media and even opposition-inclined newspapers and television observe a rigid silence on the issue.  The Botox overdose results in Putin morphing into Dobby the house elf from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, in a joke unlikely to amuse the strongman.

A television puppet show that parodied Putin as a grotesque dwarf closed shortly after he became president in 2000 and he was reportedly offended by widespread comments on his resemblance to Dobby when the the film was released in 2003. 

The audience broke into applause after a spoof of state television news coverage of Putin speaking to the parliament and Vladimir Churov, the much-disliked head of the Central Electoral Commission.  The lobotomised Putin expresses his horror at the "Party of Crooks and Thieves", an opposition term for the ruling United Russia party.  Gasps oflaughter came as the actor playing Putin leered at a projection on the wall of Olympic rhythmic gymnast Alina Kabayeva twirling her ribbons; he then stroked his hand across her bottom.  A newspaper in 2008 alleged that Putin was about to divorce and marry Kabayeva, rumours that both angrily denied, but which have lingered on to this day.

The play also satirises claims by pro-Kremlin politicians that protests and Putin’s power swap with President Dmitry Medvedev are financed by the US State Department, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton making an appearance.

In a performance days before the presidential election, Berlusconi took a back seat to topical jokes.  Faer told AFP the most recent additions to the script included Putin’s campaign manager Stanislav Govorukhin calling the intelligentsia "the shit of the nation".  "We will do this play as long as Putin is in power," said the director.

AFP/Anna Malpas/Expatica