Keti Dolidze on the female leads in Strindberg's The Stronger: 'They are both victims, both monsters'

With her production of Strindberg’s The Stronger about to open on the Edinburgh Fringe, veteran Georgian director Keti Dolidze tells Joyce McMillan about the dramatic political changes that have helped shape her creative life

To be a Georgian woman of Keti Dolidze’s age is to have lived in many worlds; and perhaps to be ready to live in a few more yet. When she was a little girl in Tbilisi, in the 1950s, she followed her father, the great Georgian director Siko Dolidze, from film set to film set, as he created films including Fatima and Last Day First Day, which helped to define an era in Georgian cinema.

“My mother died when I was only six,” says Dolidze, speaking from her family home in Tbilisi, as she prepares to bring her latest production of Strindberg’s short play The Stronger to this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. “And my father dedicated himself to two things – his work as a filmmaker, and his children. So I was always with him, and I had a wonderfully happy childhood, surrounded by amazing artists. In those days, when you made a feature film, you had to take it to Moscow for approval before it could be released across the USSR.

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“Actually we never got a general release, because the authorities saw my father’s work as too ‘art-house’; but I remember those trips, and I remember the artist friends from Russia, Ukraine, and other parts of the Soviet Union who would come to stay with us in Tbilisi. We would sit here in this room” – she pauses to glance around – “and the talk and conversation and laughter would be wonderful. So we had no choice, really, but to follow our father into the world of film and theatre.”

The StrongerThe Stronger
The Stronger

Dolidze’s father insisted, though, that she get herself a proper education before launching her career as an actress and director; and as a student in Tbilisi, she encountered the great director and teacher Mikhail Tumanishvili, whose work and legacy was to shape her career. With her graduating group of students, in 1974, she petitioned Eduard Shevardnadze – later Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet Foreign Minister, but then First Secretary of the all-powerful Communist Party in Georgia – to allow them to set up the theatre company that became the Georgian Film Actors’ Studio, later named after Tumanishvili; and by 1988, with change sweeping across the Soviet world, the dazzling quality of the company’s work had won them an international reputation which brought them to the Edinburgh Fringe, where they staged a stunning version of Don Juan at the Assembly Rooms.

“So far as our relationship with the Edinburgh Festival is concerned,” says Dolidze, “it was always a question of William Burdett-Coutts of Assembly, and his great support for us. He came to Tbilisi, saw the work, and brought us to Edinburgh again and again, with just a break for the period of war in Georgia, with shows including Tumanishvili’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, as well as King Lear and Antigone. And I also owe a great deal to Richard Demarco, who persuaded me to create my solo show Self Portrait Of A Generation.”

When Dolidze talks about war in her country, though, she speaks with profound knowledge; because after the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, and Georgia’s emergence as an independent country, years of turbulence followed. In 1992 Russia moved – in a chilling foretaste of the current conflict in Ukraine – to take back the Georgian border region of Abkhazia, which it claimed was predominantly Russian; and Dolidze became leader of the White Scarf movement, an organisation of women who set out to take a peace train into the heart of the conflict.

“In traditional Georgian culture,” says Doldize, “when women take off their white scarves and throw them down between combatants, the men are obliged to stop fighting. But for us, it didn’t work; we took our train as far as we could, but then we could see that it was over, and the Russians were in control.”

Since then, with support from a network of international friends, Dolidze has continued her work in the arts in Georgia through friendly governments and hostile ones, and through a second war with Russia in 2008, over the northern region of South Ossetia; and in the 1990s, with further help from her friends, she founded the Georgian International Festival of Arts in Tbilisi (GIFT), which continues today. She left the artistic directorship of the Tumanishvili Theatre in 2017, after an abrupt dismissal by the then culture ministry; but she still directs occasional shows for the company, including The Stronger.

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“Georgia is a country of very strong women,” says Dolidze, “in the arts and everywhere. So I was very interested to direct this dialogue of Strindberg’s – not a feminist play at all – between two women, a wife and a mistress. They are both victims, and both monsters; so I have directed it with two actresses who switch roles during the play, and I think this helps us to explore the collision and merging of very different ideas about personality, gender and sexuality.”

As for the dramatic political changes that have helped shape her creative life, Keti Dolidze feels that at the moment – despite the nearby tragedy of the Ukraine war – Georgia is living through a relatively peaceful time, with a government broadly supportive of the arts. “I always remember,” says Dolidze, “that I was once told by a very senior woman in the US State Department that no matter how much the US supports us in the former Soviet republics, in the end the Russians are our neighbours, and we must live with that.

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“Working out how to do it is very difficult; but it’s true that at the moment, parts of Georgia – including the very nice seaside places – are absolutely full of Russians and Ukrainians, avoiding the war, and living in a very friendly way, side by side. So I can say that at least there is no Russia-Ukraine war here in Georgia; and I guess that is a small sign of hope, in these times."

The Stronger is at the Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh, 3-27 August.

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