HAMBURG, Germany — At first glance, a recent rehearsal at the Thalia Theater here looked much like any other. Onstage, the actors ran through the final scene of a play called “The Black Monk,” trying to get the flow just right.
“Stop, stop, stop,” the director, Kirill Serebrennikov, cried from the middle of the auditorium. He wasn’t happy with the projections beamed onto moons suspended above the performers, and started to troubleshoot.
It was business as usual in theater, but for Serebrennikov — one of Russia’s most prominent directors, whose stage work is produced across Europe — the chance to oversee the production in person was an unexpected surprise. It was the first time in more than four years that he had been able to set foot outside of his home country.
Serebrennikov’s provocative stage work, which often deals with topics considered taboo in Russia, like homosexuality, has been seen as critical of life under President Vladimir V. Putin. Perhaps too critical, since for the last four and a half years Serebrennikov has been embroiled in a financial fraud case that is widely seen by Russia’s intelligentsia as part of a crackdown on artistic freedom.
Beginning in August 2017, Serebrennikov spent nearly 20 months under house arrest in Moscow, and was later convicted of embezzling around 133 million rubles, or around $2 million, in government funds allocated to a festival that was put on at the Gogol Center, the avant-garde theater Serebrennikov used to run. The high-profile court case resulted in a suspended sentence for the director in June 2020, but also a three-year ban on his traveling outside of Russia.
So when the director arrived at Hamburg Airport on Jan. 8, Joachim Lux, the Thalia’s artistic director, greeted him with astonishment.
In a statement issued by his theater, Lux sounded relieved, noting that his playhouse had overcome “all pandemic and political obstacles” to bring the director to Hamburg. He called the director’s safe arrival “a great miracle that gives strength in difficult times!”
Among those most surprised was Serebrennikov himself.
The director explained that his request to leave Russia so he could direct a production based on a little-known story by Anton Chekhov was unexpectedly approved, and on very short notice.
“Please allow me to go to Hamburg for work,” the director had asked Russian officials, he said during a recent news conference in the foyer of the Thalia. It was the same standard request that the authorities had rejected numerous times before. However, earlier this month, “they just gave the permission for this project,” Serebrennikov said, adding that the authorization to travel came through at the very last minute.
“They just signed the paper right after the New Year holidays,” said the 52-year-old director, dressed in black and wearing lightly tinted sunglasses and a baseball cap. “Probably I was a good guy, my behavior was good and that’s why they said OK,” he added.
In an interview after the news conference, Serebrennikov said he had given up trying to understand exactly why he was let out of Russia to direct “The Black Monk.”
“Here I am. I’m in Hamburg,” he said with a shrug. “We are creating theater together with a lot of very talented people in one of the best theaters in the world.”
When he was unable to leave Russia, Serebrennikov found resourceful ways to keep his work going abroad. In November 2018, when he was still under house arrest and prohibited from using the internet, he directed a production of Mozart’s “Così Fan Tutte” at the Zurich Opera using a relay system for video files that involved a USB stick hand-delivered to him by his lawyer in Moscow.
Similar technological workarounds have allowed him to remain highly prolific in captivity of one kind or another. Since the Zurich “Così,” he has also had artistic control of stage productions in Germany and Austria and completed two well-received films, “Leto,” in 2018, and “Petrov’s Flu” in 2021, both of which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, in the director’s absence.
In much of Serebrennikov’s recent stage work, confinement has appeared as a central theme, including in his production of “Outside,” which played in Avignon and Berlin, and his 2021 staging of Richard Wagner’s “Parsifal” at the Vienna State Opera, which was partially set in a prison. His production of Dmitri Shostakovich’s “The Nose,” which opened the current season at the Bavarian State Opera, featured scenes of state violence and repression in a dystopian yet oddly contemporary Russia.
Serebrennikov speculated that being forced to practice his craft remotely over the months he spent under house arrest gave him an edge once the pandemic began. “It was my personal rehearsal for Corona,” he said with a wry laugh.
Since his legal woes began in 2017, Serebrennikov has become an emblem of artistic freedom in the face of government repression. But the director said he was uncomfortable with this role. “I’m a working animal,” he said. “I don’t want to be a symbol.”
Even by the director’s standards, “The Black Monk” is a challenging production. It features a large cast of Russian, German, American, Armenian and Latvian actors, dancers and singers, has dialogue in three languages and incorporates music by the Latvian composer Jekabs Nimanis.
“We have not too much time,” Serebrennikov said of the two weeks he has in Hamburg to finish the production. And while he seemed glad to be back to “in person” directing, he said that working remotely is an artistically viable alternative.
“We get used to having a lot of digital life around us,” he said. “Of course, personal presence is much more preferable for me, but Zoom is OK,” he added.
After “The Black Monk,” Serebrennikov has a number of other international productions on the horizon, including an opera at this summer’s Holland Festival in Amsterdam, and a possible tour of “The Black Monk.” Whether he’ll be allowed to travel for either is unclear.
“It could happen, but nobody knows,” he said. “I prefer to be in the moment and not to hope too much,” he added, alluding to his own legal predicament and the wider world’s battering by the pandemic.
Under the conditions of his travel permit, Serebrennikov must return to Russia on Jan. 22, the day after “The Black Monk” opens. The director said he had every intention of going back to Moscow, where he will start work on a film that will be his first in English.
“I’m a reliable person,” he said, adding that “the people who allowed me to leave are probably at risk as well.”