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Once the toast of Russias avant garde, Serebennikov now faces a 10-year jail sentence. As his powerful, sexually charged play Outside is staged in Avignon, he vows he wont be silenced

On the stage of a small theatre outside Avignon, a man paces around a mock-up of an apartment. Music issues from somewhere and there is a sense of a cityscape, close but impossible to reach. The man mutters to his shadow, sees visions, engages in conversation with people who might or might not be there. The door bursts open, revealing goons wearing the uniform of Russias Federal Security Service (FSB). An interrogation commences. Afterwards, the man stands looking out, illuminated by an outsized red star that looks as if its been filched from the roof of the Kremlin. Later, he attempts to crank open the window and jump.

This is Outside, a new play that has just opened at the Avignon festival. As the images pile up, they make you think of one thing above all else: the director and writer of the work, Russian theatre-maker Kirill Serebrennikov. Hes not so much the ghost at the feast here as a kind of gaping void, probably the most talked about person in town yet invisible but for a few photographs. Arrested in August 2017 on fraud charges, and until recently held under house arrest in conditions resembling those of the man on stage, the director is still not permitted to leave Moscow.

Beauty and creative struggle Odin Biron, right, in a rehearsal of Outside. Photograph: Grard Julien/AFP/Getty Images

At the curtain call of Outside, the cast disappeared mid-applause and returned wearing white T-shirts saying: FREE KIRILL. The following morning, a press conference was held in Serebrennikovs honour, and he was bestowed an honorary degree in his absence. As a journalist from Le Point magazine put it: Il drange Its disturbing.

Outside is perhaps the most nakedly confessional piece Serebrennikov has ever done. Disturbing, but not in the ways one might expect. While the directors own plight a constant drumbeat in the show is impossible to ignore, it is also not really the point. Its about much more than the politics, says Sofia Kapkova, whose international arts foundation Mart co-produced the work.

Serebrennikov himself, speaking via secure audio message from Moscow while he awaits the outcome of his trial, would prefer not to address politics at all. Though the piece is based on my own fantasies, he denies that the man on stage, named the Escapee, is him. Well, not quite him. Its an accumulative image of a person, he tells me.

A supporter of Serebrennikov wears a paper bag with the writer-directors image at the 2018 Berlin international film festival. Photograph: DPA Picture Alliance/Alamy

Seven years ago, Serebrennikov had everything. Lauded by artists and critics on Moscows punky avant-garde arts scene, yet also adept at schmoozing the citys power brokers, he seemed high above the political fray. In 2012, he was invited to run the Gogol Centre in the citys unfashionable Basmanny district, and turned this struggling space into a thrilling arena for experimental drama. A new festival, Platforma, drew passionate young crowds and swooning reviews not least because Serebrennikovs own shows enjoyed poking fun at Putin and the ruling elite.

But then, Russian politics became more fraught and authoritarian in the wake of the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, and things came crashing down. Platformas funding evaporated and three Gogol staff were arrested. Serebrennikov himself was put on trial, charged with embezzling state funds to the tune of 133m rubles (around 1.7m). He faces up to 10 years in jail.

Conspiracy theories have multiplied: that the director had offended someone, or drifted too close to power, or was making work that didnt fit with the wave of intolerant religiosity that has infected Russian culture. One especially Kafkaesque accusation concerned a 2012 production of A Midsummer Nights Dream. Even though it had been seen by thousands of people and been shown at an awards ceremony, prosecutors claimed that it had never happened.

It seems unlikely that the truth will ever be clear assuming such a commodity exists. One arts producer I speak to has a theory that Russias labyrinthine finance regulations are deliberately impossible to follow; no one can be entirely above board. It becomes a way of controlling you, if they want, she says. Whats notable is that Outside is being produced by a private foundation, rather than the Gogol, where Serebrennikov remains artistic director. This project would be too hot to handle for a state-funded organisation.

Amid it all, Serebrennikov seemed almost to relish the confrontation. In 2016, he directed a movie called The Student, which portrayed a teenage boy succumbing to Orthodox Christian fanaticism an agonisingly powerful film, but also one in the eye for those intolerant clerics. Even under house arrest, he has completed a new film, Leto, and directed operas remotely in Zurich and Hamburg, watching video footage of rehearsals and sending notes back via USB sticks entrusted to his lawyer. I simply worked, he has said.

Serebrennikovs 2016 film The Student.

Outside began several years ago, when the director came across photographs of contemporary Chinese artist Ren Hang another figure who had a troubled relationship with a heavy-handed state. Self-taught, known for slyly funny, outlandish and often semi-pornographic images of his friends (a topless woman clutching a swan, a man peeing on a cactus bush), Ren became an art world star in the west in the early 2010s. He was also gay, and was arrested many times by the Chinese authorities on suspicion of obscenity. I was hooked by his talent, Serebrennikov says. You see it in every frame.

The director got in touch and the two arranged to meet. Then news came in February 2017 that Ren had died after jumping from the window of his Beijing tower block. He was 29 and had written openly about his struggles with depression. Six months later, Serebrennikov was confined to his own apartment building. By the time he was released from house arrest last May, still on bail, he had a script based on Ren, co-written with two colleagues, and immediately set to work with actors. It is the first piece he has been able to rehearse in person in almost 18 months.

There was a lot of pent-up energy, says the American-Russian actor Odin Biron, who plays the Escapee. Kirill was pretty much bouncing off the walls.

The show is a complex and bewitching amalgam. Both an act of mourning and a celebration of Rens extraordinary visual imagination, Outside also weaves in the directors own fantasies and fears one of which is that he, too, might take his own life. After the arrest scene, we watch a sequence of dreamlike encounters with Ren and his images, as if the book of photographs in his apartment had burst to life.

Its about much more than politics a scene from Outside. Photograph: Christophe Raynaud de Lage

Ren, clutching his camera, materialises from the same door that brought in the FSB. A cavalcade of male and female models follow and cheerfully remove their clothes. They pose with an array of surreal props hints of Rens photographs, though the real images never actually appear. We didnt want to use them, says Serebrennikov. We wanted to create our own story.

A live band arrives and just as rapidly disrobes. Someone who might be based on Robert Mapplethorpe joins in and it all gets a bit S&M. Sex runs through the piece, with nudity near-constant. But it is oddly innocent, even poignant, giving the sense that, in a repressive, surveillance-obsessed world, desire is one of the few things people have left.

Serebrennikov in 2015 in Stuttgart, where he was directing an opera. Photograph: Bernd Weissbrod/DPA/Alamy

Filled with music and illuminated by stage tableaux of piercing beauty, Outside is somewhere between fever dream, nervous breakdown and act of fierce creative resistance. Its as if Serebrennikov has turned the hall of mirrors on itself. I think its about beauty, says Odin, and about beauty being the only thing thats important. It is about the creative struggle every artist goes through: do you want a comfortable life, or a life of ideals?

The plays title offers a link between Ren and Serebrennikov. Both men were cast as outsiders, but outside is the one place the director aside from daily walks was not allowed to be. It was a time when I couldnt talk to anyone, Serebrennikov tells me. Then I set the piece free, so to speak.

What will happen next? Last month, the directors trial was delayed yet again, to allow for more evidence to be reviewed possibly good news, though no one is sure. Kapkova is hopeful that Serebrennikov might have his passport restored and join a Gogol Centre tour to Tel Aviv this September. Im an optimist, she says, then laughs bitterly. Anything can happen. Russia is a country of possibility. (Kapkova hopes it will travel to Europe and perhaps New York.)

Serebrennikov would like the piece to speak for itself. Yes, there are no easy answers, either in politics or in art. But in a world that seems more disastrously absolutist and cartoonish by the day, he thinks we should cling to complexity. One of the most sinister tendencies of the contemporary world is the tendency for simplification, he says. Complexity is todays act of resistance.

Outside is at the Avignon festival until 23 July.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2019/jul/22/russian-roulette-director-staging-resistance-kirill-serebrennikov-avignon-festival