views from the gods

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The Burning Gadulka
The Drayton Theatre
16th June 2016


Miro Kokenov in The Burning Gadulka

Photography © NO BONES PHOTO

The Burning Gadulka, The Burning Gadulka... Well, what on earth is a gadulka I hear you cry! A gadulka, my friends, is a Bulgarian wooden string instrument. It is played with a bow and has three main strings. It forms part of the Bulgarian folk orchestra, which also includes a tŭpan (drum), a bagpipe, a tambura (lute) and a kaval (flute). Well, why is the gadulka burning? Isn't it dangerous to watch a wooden instrument burn? I'm afraid there is no actual burning in this performance, though the protagonist, a gadulka player (Miro Kokenov), makes it clear on more than one occasion that he would quite like to destroy this terrible instrument. And why is the instrument so terrible? An instrument which was first made out of catgut and played with a bow of horsehair is hardly the nicest thing. But it also has other flaws, which will ensure a life of misery for any gadulka player, or at least that is what Kokenov's character claims.

In this 70-minute one-man show the nameless musician ponders his future, despairs over his present and reminisces about the past. The instrument itself provides a framework for his quirky stories and anecdotes, with the relationship between gadulka and player echoing that of cursed human lovers. As Kokenov switches between holding his bow in a daggerlike manner and caressing the gadulka tenderly, it becomes clear that this is a real love-hate affair. Nevertheless, although we are witnessing the thoughts of an unhappy man, the performance is full of humour. From stories about the neighbour's cat to the introduction of a giant soft toy panda, there are plenty of jokes and laughter to be found.

Director Milena Aneva brings out the comedy well, which is the production's key strength. Kokenov is a naturally 'funny' man and puts in a decent performance as the slightly insane gadulka player. He has an amusing array of facial expressions, my personal favourite being the forced toothy grin (apparently the director of the folk orchestra orders everyone to show their teeth when they smile). I also enjoyed Kokenov's exaggerated, humorous movements, with his attempts at Bulgarian folk dancing and demonstrations of the different orchestra members being particularly entertaining.

Having said that, I would have liked more depth and emotion in Kokenov's delivery at times. I just couldn't care that much about his character and what would happen to him or his gadulka. More could have been made of the more emotional aspects to Rayko Baychev's writing such as the gadulka player's loneliness and fears for the future. Whilst Angela Rodel's translation captures the poetic elements of the original script beautifully, it's difficult to form a connection with the player.

At over an hour, The Burning Gaudulka felt a touch overlong for a monologue and I felt my attention drifting at times. I was also disappointed that we didn't hear the gadulka itself being played properly. Most of the Bulgarian folk music in the piece came through speakers, which didn't really allow us to appreciate this ill-fated instrument or to make up our own minds about it. However, this unusual, comic production would appeal to people with an interest in folk music culture or Bulgarian life.

The Burning Gadulka opened on 14th June and runs until 18th June 2016 the Drayton Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Gloucester Road (Piccadilly, Circle, District)

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