Jonathan Salwa yand the Moscow English Theatre

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The Moscow English Theatre is now attracting a lot of well deserved attention. The Theatre’s founder and major driver Jonathan Salway, who first visited Russia back in 2009 on a short work contract didn’t realise then that 5 years on he would regard the place as home and have his own growing theatre company here.

In May his company’s – the Moscow English Theatre’s (MET) – sell-out production of Willy Russell’s classic comedy, Educating Rita, returns for their 5th season at the Mayakovsky Theatre. “We have to keep on bringing the show back for people who say they missed it – and even for those who want to see it again!”, Jonathan quips.

MET is a company that employs professional actors from the UK to perform in successful, contemporary British drama and Educating Rita has been joined by two other shows in the company’s repertoire. “We plan three new productions each year and those that gel with the public we will add to our repertoire and play them again for short seasons.” He promises a mixed diet of serious, thought provoking drama alongside comedy and, this coming December, a whodunit.

“Moscow audiences are such a treat to work for – attentive, appreciative and flowers at the end”, says Emma Dallow who plays the role of Rita and trained at London’s Central School of Speech and Drama.

With a B.A. from Hull University followed by Acting Diplomas from the University of California and Drama Studio, London, Jonathan had spent 20 years living a typical actors life in the UK – in and out of theatre jobs, temping one week, auditioning the next, in the West End for a while or off on a tour.

Selection_200It was during one of his temping stints as a drama supply teacher that a colleague said he knew of a summer camp near Moscow that needed someone good at drama. “Thankfully he recommended me,” Jonathan notes.

The rest is history – he fell in love with Moscow and was surprised that a metropolis so rich in theatrical history and culture, a growing number of Russians well versed in English and a large expat community did not already boast an English speaking theatre company. “I’ve worked in Italy and Germany and for the English-speaking theatre of Vienna it just seemed natural that such a theatre should be here. I was surprised that it didn’t already exist.”

MET was born. His fiancé, Karina Sagoyan, a language professor at MSU = Moscow State University, helped him in establishing the company. “She gets all the bitty, gritty jobs – tax, translations, box office issues etc. Show business eh?,” jokes Jonathan. “Actually she is the creative pulse of the company. I always seek her advice for shows that would work here and get her to vet prospective directors and performers. Her input is invaluable and acts as a kind of ‘quality control’ so that we offer the professional standards we want to offer the Moscow public”.

It seems to be working. Four sell-out seasons and a growing confidence means they already have plans for the rest of this year and into the next. “In the autumn we will be producing a fantastic English comedy – Relatively Speaking – by the master of theatre comedy, Alan Ayckbourn”. Regularly produced in the UK and throughout the world Ayckbourn’s work hasn’t had enormous exposure in Russia (certainly not in English) but Jonathan and Karina are convinced it will delight Moscow audiences. “It has crackling, witty dialogue and a plot of confused identities and that cheeky English humour”, says Karina.

Then for the New Year time they will stage the ever popular murder mystery, Sleuth by Anthony Shaffer.

Selection_201“One practical criteria for us at this stage of our development is small cast plays. Sleuth has two actors, Rita two and Blue/Orange (their spring production) three.” Flying actors over, organising visas, accommodation and paying a wage takes a large cut from the budget and large casts are a luxury they cannot afford. “Moscow has many large theatre companies with actors who work in one company for their entire careers. In the UK it is different. Yes, the National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company (for which Jonathan has worked) can afford large companies of actors but that is not the norm.” Actors in the UK are freelancers and go from job to job and so most producers find small cast shows more economically viable. “This has meant a tradition of writers writing shows for smaller numbers of performers. And there are some great shows!”

In April MET played 4 sell-out performances of Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange, a psychological drama with a cast of three. For this, experienced director, Gary Sefton who works regularly for the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Theatres Royal in Northampton and Bath, was flown in. “It’s quite a tricky piece – detailed plot and complicated ideas – but the audience went with it all the way”, Gary explained.

This positive audience response has encouraged Jonathan through the hard work the project has entailed. “I still sometimes run around on the metro delivering tickets and then get back to have a rehearsal.” Such are the demands of launching a new venture with the ambition that MET has.

“We want to be a permanent feature on the Moscow theatrical skyline and add at least three new shows a year and even start to include Russian actors in the future if their English is of a high enough standard (and their acting as well of course).” Education ventures are planned as well with a schools’ Oliver Twist in development – “updated with lots of music and fun but true to the original spirit” – as well as MET Youth which aims to offer Russian children 10 week courses in play rehearsals followed by performance.

But this is into the more distant future. For the time being they are in rehearsal again for Educating Rita which BBC Arts Critic, Lord Melvyn Bragg, described as “magnificent” on his BBC blog after seeing the show in September.

“We want to produce quality contemporary drama to the same standard (and language standard) as you would see in London.” As Komsomolskaya Pravda wrote “MET offers Muscovites a performance with professional actors not just native speakers.” Jonathan assures us that this will always be their mission.

See for yourself by coming along to the Mayakovsky Theatre some time in the near future to catch MET in action.