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Creative Multilingualism

Katrin Kohl
Rajinder Dudrah
Andrew Gosler
et al.

4. A Breath of Fresh Air… Ivan Vyrypaev’s Oxygen (2002)

From Moscow to Birmingham via Oxford

Rajinder Dudrah, Julie Curtis, Philip Ross Bullock et Noah Birksted-Breen

Texte intégral

1How might a Russian play be translated and adapted through hip-hop and related genres on the British stage? What might such a process reveal about doing creative multilingualism beyond conventional language learning contexts, and via collaboration between scholars and artists in the creative industries? Our chapter explores how these questions emerged, and how the act of translating, adapting and performing the Russian play Oxygen came about.

2The idea for re-working Oxygen through aspects of UK hip-hop and grime occurred during an event organized by Rajinder Dudrah, which brought the rap, hip-hop and grime artists RTKal, Ky’Orion and Royalty from Birmingham to perform at Oxford’s Taylor Institution in 2017. In their performance, they played with greetings from different languages, and drew on patois via a Rastafarian frame of reference, further energized through their spoken-word art form.

3This provided a lightbulb moment for Julie Curtis and Noah Birksted-Breen, who looked at each other, and wondered what would happen if they introduced such artists to Ivan Vyrypaev’s work… The initial moment of inspiration eventually led to artistic collaboration with the two UK hip-hop artists Lady Sanity and Stanza Divan from Birmingham and Leicester respectively, culminating in a performance on 11 October 2018 at Birmingham City University.

Fig. 1 Left to right: Simon Redgrave from Punch Records and artists Ky’Orion and RTKal, speaking after a performance at the first Creative Multilingualism conference, Taylor Institution, University of Oxford, 28 January 2017. Reproduced by kind permission of Kyle Greaves aka Ky’Orion, Joshua Holness aka RTKal and Simon Redgrave.

Photograph by John Cairns (2017), CC BY-NC.

Fig. 2 Left to right: Lady Sanity, Rajinder Dudrah, Stanza Divan and Noah Birksted-Breen at a Q & A following the Research and Development performance of Oxygen at Birmingham City University, 11 October 2018. Reproduced by kind permission of Noah Birksted-Breen, Rajinder Dudrah, Liam Lazare-Parris aka Stanza Divan and Sherelle Robbins aka Lady Sanity.

Photograph by Katy Terry (2018), CC BY-NC.

4In what follows, Julie Curtis offers a contextual overview of Oxygen and its importance not only in Russia but also beyond, highlighting the versatility that makes the play particularly well suited to translation and contemporary interpretation. Philip Ross Bullock provides an analysis of the language and musicality in the play, alongside its ‘Russian-ness’, as the musicality allows another entry point for different languages to exist, be spoken and performed alongside each other. Noah Birksted-Breen presents an account of the challenges and possibilities of taking up the form, ideology and musicality that Curtis and Bullock describe, particularly in re-imagining these for contemporary UK audiences. Rajinder Dudrah introduces the genre of grime, with part of its antecedents in rap and hip-hop, and reflects on the process of collaboration in putting together an artistic enterprise as a thinking and doing piece in the creative industries. What we offer, then, is not a linear or uniform diary of our events. Instead, we offer perspectives on the original play through translation and adaptation, a process which led to eclectic collaborative research and the development of Oxygen through UK hip-hop theatre.

On Oxygen

Julie Curtis

5As an informal group of researchers, we have been working for some years now to explore the impact academic interventions can have in facilitating the staging of contemporary Russian drama in Britain. The Creative Multilingualism project has provided an ideal framework for such an investigation, allowing us to contextualize this undertaking more broadly and to understand the role languages play in the creative economy, and their significance for performance. In this case study we show how one of the best-known Russian plays of this century still encounters hurdles in reaching British audiences, and investigate how translation can grow into transposition, to give a foreign text new life in entirely different cultural contexts.

6The Russian playwright Ivan Vyrypaev (born 1974) came to prominence in Moscow early in the twenty-first century as a leading figure in the ‘New Drama’ movement, which has shaped the most inventive and courageous theatre-making in Putin’s Russia. Vyrypaev grew up in Eastern Siberia but moved to Moscow, and in his late twenties he saw his play Kislorod (Oxygen) premiered by one of the few independent theatre companies there, Teatr.doc. The play was translated by Sasha Dugdale with the title Oxygen in a version which remained remarkably true to the original while preserving its musicality. This was staged as a rehearsed reading at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 2004, and it has been taken up in other countries since then. In 2009/10 it was fully staged for just a handful of performances by the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). Vyrypaev also made a Russian film version of the play under the same title, Kislorod (2009), which is probably the most widely-known version of the work for Russian speakers.

7The play is structured around the Ten Commandments, which are cited in turn at the beginning of each ‘Composition’, the musical term used to designate each section of the play. The text is made up of a dialogue between a She and a He, principally recounting the love affair between Sasha from Serpukhov (Alexander) and Sasha from Moscow (Alexandra), which begins with the male Sasha battering his wife to death with a spade. Sasha justifies his actions by his longing for ‘oxygen’, which his wife lacks and the female Sasha offers. The male Sasha lives in the town of Serpukhov, a couple of hours by train south of Moscow, a place so run-down that nowadays they can make films about the 1917 Revolution there without building any special sets. The play encompasses the hopeless lives of the young people, many of them alcoholics or drug addicts, who live in Serpukhov, and contrasts that with the more cosmopolitan outlook of Moscow. But there is also a great deal about the wider world, in particular the Arab-Israeli conflicts and the events of 9/11. This elevates the play’s preoccupation with violence to a higher level, offering a meditation on the ways in which great love (sexual attraction, or religious belief) can lead to great evil.

8The play’s ten Compositions are performed with a sing-song manner of speech often involving syncopated rhythms, echoed patterning or repeated phrases in the dialogues.

Extracts from Oxygen

9Композиция 1. Танцы

101 куплет:

Вы слышали, что сказано древним: не убивай; кто же убьет, подлежит суду? А я знал одного человека, у которого был очень плохой слух. Он не слышал, когда говорили, не убей, быть может, потому, что он был в плеере. Он не слышал, не убей, он взял лопату, пошел в огород и убил. Потом вернулся в дом, включил музыку погромче, и стал танцевать.

11Composition No. 1 ‘Dances’

121st couplet:

Have you heard what was said to the people in ancient times: ‘Thou shalt not kill: he who is killed will be judged’? But I know one man, who couldn’t hear properly. He didn’t hear when they said ‘Thou shalt not kill’, perhaps because he was listening to his Walkman. He didn’t hear ‘Thou shalt not kill’, and he took a spade, and went into the vegetable garden, and he killed. Then he came back into the house, turned the music up, and began to dance.

13The play shocked Russian audiences by its unflinching representations of violence in the domestic and the public sphere. Authorial comment on this appears in the finale, which is a plea for people to take note of the dilemmas facing the new generation, born in the 1970s, which has reached adulthood in the twenty-first century. Some of the language is archaic, redolent of the Bible, and occasionally it becomes beautiful and poetic. But the play is also filled with obscenities, and in this respect was one of the first to transgress a taboo that had remained firmly entrenched throughout the Soviet era, and had continued even since the collapse of the USSR in 1991. Since 2014, the sharp turn towards social conservatism in Russia has seen obscenity banned by new legislation from film, literature and theatre, so that any performances of the play in Russia today would technically be breaking the law.

14The depiction of young people’s lives in the play is partly achieved through the references to music and dancing: just as in Vyrypaev’s 2002 production at Moscow’s Teatr.doc, the 2003 Royal Court production in London involved a DJ, the playwright Debbie Tucker Green, to provide backing tracks to score the sections. The 2009 RSC production brought over from Russia the 2008 world champion breakdancing team Top 9, whose performance brilliantly punctuated the text with breakdancing sequences loosely inspired by the unfolding of the narratives. Vyrypaev’s text prompts performers to speak some of the text as rap, and for his 2009 film he commissioned a whole range of Russian musicians to set each of the ten Compositions to music, and he too used breakdancers.

15The play Oxygen has the potential to speak to audiences worldwide about the disconnectedness young people may feel about the world events they watch on their screens, the challenges of finding a moral compass in the modern era and the difficulties of escaping the stifling suffocation — or lack of spiritual oxygen — in their lives. At a public discussion in 2015, Vyrypaev, by now an ardent follower of Mohandas K. Gandhi, argued that the advent of the Internet has simply rendered it impossible for us to live separately and to be indifferent: the world has come together, irrespective of our politics and religions, and obliges us to seek what unites us universally. In 2017, he also wrote about the urgent need to offer values to the young that differ from those which still prevail in Russia as a legacy of the Soviet era.

16However, significant questions arise about the possibilities and limitations of ‘domesticating’ a play like Oxygen in order to communicate the concerns it raises to an English-speaking audience, or for it to function successfully as drama in any other setting outside Russia. Non-linguistic forms of communication such as music, rapping and breakdancing can facilitate the ‘translation’ of the text to a new environment. Nevertheless, Sasha Dugdale has warned of other challenges which the play offers to a British director — specifically when it comes to disentangling racist and sexist attitudes expressed by the characters, and interpreting the author’s stance on these matters (Dugdale 2006: 46). Our project responds to these challenges creatively, through a process of prismatic translation, by inviting UK hip-hop artists from the Midlands to rework the play — one of the most important to emerge from Russia in the new century — for a British audience which will be unfamiliar with the Russian social and political background to the play, but responsive to the urgent moral questions it asks.

The Rhythm of Life

Philip Ross Bullock

17Audiences of Kislorod and the English translation Oxygen are perhaps most likely to be struck by Vyrypaev’s use of language, particularly his distinctive fusion of quotations from the Bible with profanity and explicit references to sex and drugs. Certainly, much of Oxygen’s impact rests on its transgressive and even blasphemous tone, an effect which is heightened by its schematic plot and the lack of psychological depth in the characterization. What is equally crucial to the play, however, is its inventive structure, which is in many ways akin to musical form. The significance of sound in Oxygen is present from the outset of the play, in which we encounter a young man with poor hearing who dances in time to the music he listens to on his Walkman. Around halfway through the play, Vyrypaev scripts a brief episode of rap. Even where there is no explicit reference to music, the use of frequent repetitions — whether of individual words, whole lines or even entire paragraphs — means that the play’s provocative content is placed in a carefully structured, quasi-musical context, which is one of the main sources of its surprising beauty.

18Indeed, the play as a whole is set out in terms which are explicitly musical and can perhaps be interpreted as a kind of ‘theme and variations’ in which Vyrypaev, as composer-playwright, develops his material by the subtle use of repetition and development. Take, for instance, the use of words such as kompozitsiya (composition), kuplet (verse), pripev (chorus) and final (finale) which are used to describe and demarcate the play’s ten individual sections:

19Composition No. 1 (‘Dances’):

1st verse
2nd verse
3rd verse

20Composition No. 2 (‘Sasha loves Sasha’):

1st verse
2nd verse
3rd verse

21Composition No. 3 (‘No and yes’):

1st verse
2nd verse

22Composition No. 4 (‘Moscow rum’):

1st verse
2nd verse

23Composition No. 5 (‘The Arab world’):

1st verse
2nd verse

24Composition No. 6 (‘How without feelings’)

25Composition No. 7 (‘Amnesia’):

1st verse
2nd verse

26Composition No. 8 (‘Pearl’):

1st verse
2nd verse

27Composition No. 9 (‘For the main thing’):

1st verse

28Composition No. 10 (‘Listening to his Walkman’):

1st verse
2nd verse

29As the above scheme illustrates, the play derives much of its force from the various iterations of its individual building blocks. Moreover, it not only repeats key structural devices, but develops them by combining them in different ways so that each composition differs from the preceding one (with the exception of the first and the second). Important as the play’s verbal material might be, its impact derives as much, if not more, from the quasi-musical framework that Vyrypaev employs. As Susanna Weygandt has recently argued, ‘musically and rhythmically inclined, Vyrypaev sees the world through organized rhythm’ (Weygandt 2018: 205).

30Yet if the structure borrows techniques that are more familiar from music, it is much less explicit when it comes to the actual music that might be used in a performance (other than the brief passage of scripted rap in ‘Composition No. 5’, and even that is marked as being at the discretion of the director). The implicit musicality of the play thus gives its performers considerable licence when it comes to interpreting it at any given moment in time (as in the 2009 film version of the play). The original play text of Kislorod (2002) is seemingly stable, yet the realization of its musical form is one way in which a new staging can respond to Vyrypaev’s demand that Kislorod is a work ‘which should be produced here and now’, just as a translation into a foreign language permits for a re-accenting of the original Russian to conform to the circumstances of a new production. At the same time, however, the play’s musicality places it in dialogue with the theatrical traditions of the past. Stage music has long been part of the world of drama — think, for instance, of the ‘noises, sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not’ that suffuse Shakespeare’s The Tempest (Shakespeare 2013: 187). Or Felix Mendelssohn’s score for a production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream from 1842 (Mendelssohn 2000), or the music that Tchaikovsky provided for a run of Hamlet in 1891 (Tchaikovsky 1892). Such scores are perhaps more familiar nowadays from concert performance, but they attest to the ways in which music and the word have long been entwined in dramatic theatre.

31There is, though, another way of looking at Vyrypaev’s Oxygen and its relationship to music. Throughout the twentieth century, many dramatists have managed to draw on the expressive potential of music as a means of coping with the apparent emptiness of language and the existential bleakness of modern existence. In Anton Chekhov’s plays, for instance, characters often talk past each other and find themselves confined to the most meaningless banalities. Music, however, seems to belong to another emotional realm, somehow expressing — despite its abstraction — crucial features of a play’s emotional world. The verbal texture of Uncle Vanya (1899) is often punctuated with instances of real music — songs sung or hummed to the accompaniment of a guitar — and the play’s final moments are full of an intense musicality where humdrum words and activities are suffused with the atmosphere of another world (Chekhov 1988: 184–85). In The Cherry Orchard (1904) too, sound serves to structure the play, even when words fall short. In a famous moment in Act II (Chekhov 1988: 315), the action is interrupted by a strange sound which is variously interpreted by one character as the call of a heron, by another as the sound of an owl, and by a third as what may be the snapping of a cable in a distant mineshaft. Then, the end of the play resonates with the sound of trees being cut down. Chekhov was, of course, using sound to convey atmosphere and verisimilitude. But he was doing more than that; he was investing ordinary human language with something mysterious and evocative that resists ready verbal description. This ‘musicality’ was central to the development of European drama in the decades that followed, not least in the works of Samuel Beckett, where music and language sit creatively, yet uneasily together, and where music often supplants words altogether, as in the case of his 1976 television play, Ghost Trio, with its explicit use of a number of extracts of Beethoven’s work of the same name (Beckett 1977: 39–47).

32So, the role of music in Vyrypaev’s Oxygen is not just a gesture to the kind of popular culture which was so central to post-Soviet literature; neither is it merely an extension of the play’s seemingly nihilistic treatment of sex, drugs and violence. Oxygen’s soundtrack is central to how the play structures form and time, and invests its verbal meanings with something more intangibly mysterious and immaterial. Our reading of the play will be impoverished if we consider only its ‘content’ or propositional logic; instead, we must attend to its musicality, its rhythms and its form — to the oxygen which gives the play its life and animates its constituent parts.

A Statement of Creative Intent: Directing Vyrypaev’s ‘Impossible Play’

Noah Birksted-Breen

33As has already been indicated, many new Russian plays are experimental. I have heard Russian directors accuse Russian playwrights of writing ‘an impossible play’ on more than one occasion. Julie Curtis has elaborated on the challenges of form and ideology in Oxygen, while Philip Ross Bullock notes that music offers the possibility of a non-verbal ‘message’ — which the director must interpret in their staging. In this section, I explain the approach taken to imagining Oxygen for British audiences. This was developed in a collaboration between UK hip-hop artists Lady Sanity and Stanza Divan, the producer and curator Rajinder Dudrah, and myself as director.

34Over my dozen years of translating and staging new Russian plays in London, I have observed a general tendency in British theatre in relation to new foreign plays. Almost without exception, UK theatres create ‘niches’ for translated plays. The audience is prepped for an encounter with the foreign ‘other’. Even before the spectators turn up, the marketing prepares the spectators for what lies ahead, with the subtext: ‘this is from a different country, be warned!’.

35The perceived need for prepping is understandable. British audiences have proven themselves to be cautious about plays which are stylistically at odds with what they know. Vicky Featherstone, current Artistic Director of the Royal Court, has stated that ‘we are not traditionally a country that is good at looking beyond our shores. […] Our island geography, coupled with our imperialist nature, has encouraged a culture of splendid isolation’ (Aston and O’Thomas 2015: 185). This is not a new state of affairs. The founder of the Royal Court, George Devine, attempted unsuccessfully to make contemporary foreign-language plays a major part of the company’s repertoire from the mid-1950s (ibid.: 5). Nevertheless, over decades, the Court has been one of a small number of British theatres advocating and producing international work. So, I celebrate the Royal Court and producers at other theatres daring enough to stage some contemporary foreign-language drama.

36The fact remains that in order to drum up audiences and critical interest, most new foreign plays are produced under the banner of foreign ‘otherness’ — labelled by their nationality and presented in studio spaces for specialist audiences (those familiar with experimental work). As a consequence, audiences are encouraged to experience foreign cultures as being fundamentally different to British culture, rather than similar — or even as a combination of similar/different. Contemporary translated plays should offer a nuanced ‘dialogue’, not a binary ‘us and them’.

37At its core, this conservative approach to new foreign dramas is monocultural. British programmers tend to seek out new Russian plays which can be translated directly into an ‘equivalent’ and familiar British genre, performed by British-trained actors, directed in conventional British directing styles. Yet this representation of new Russian plays does not correspond to their multicultural composition. Many Russian playwrights are, naturally, influenced by a range of cultures. Their inspirations are diverse, including UK traditions: Vasilii Sigarev’s iconic hit play Plasticine (2001) was partly inspired by Stephen King’s The Body (1982); the Presnyakov Brothers wrote their plays at least partly under the influence of Trainspotting, the novel (1993) and the film (1996); while talented playwright Irina Vas’kovskaya — who has won several awards since 2014 — draws upon Harold Pinter’s oeuvre for stylistic inspiration. To understand ‘foreign’ work, it is vital to perceive it through a multicultural lens, and consider what that might mean for theatrical practice. A multilingual translation is likely to respond better to the diverse cultural ‘layers’ within each drama.

38It is time to pioneer new approaches at all stages of the production process in:

  • The selection of plays: experimentation could extend to more daring choices of foreign texts — those which are least similar to the dominant naturalistic ‘new writing’ traditions in Britain;

  • Translation practice: a move towards multilingual adaptations would generate new conceptual approaches;

  • The staging of foreign dramas: directors and actors could embrace performance styles which acknowledge the original theatrical context of the translated play as opposed to solely its socio-political context.

39The project which I proposed for our research strand ‘Languages in the Creative Economy’, in my dual capacity as artistic director of Sputnik Theatre Company and postdoctoral researcher, engages with each of these three areas by:

  • Working with a non-realist text, Ivan Vyrypaev’s Oxygen, which offers a significant formal departure from dominant British ‘new writing’ traditions based largely on realism;

  • Engaging hip-hop artists to adapt an existing translation, shifting the emphasis from the original Russian context into a British narrative storyline — He and She became Jordan (a young black man living near the Grenfell Tower) and Jordan (a young woman in London running a beauty blog, an Instagrammer);

  • Staging the work through a complete adaptation using hip-hop lyrics instead of a conventional playtext, to accentuate the ‘Russianness’ of the play’s tonality and non-linear structure, while emphasizing striking similarities between youth subcultures in Russia and the UK, most notably their political dispossession.

40For ten days in September and October 2018, Sanity and Stanza worked with Sasha Dugdale’s literary and monolingual translation in a collaborative process with myself and Rajinder in order to adapt Oxygen as a multilingual piece. The adapted version draws upon urban black youth speech, English ‘received pronunciation’, archaic English and even some Russian words (woven into the sampled musical tracks). In a future iteration of this work, we hope to add Caribbean-influenced patois and other languages beyond English through video-projections of overseas hip-hop artists speaking in their own languages.

Extract from Oxygen

41Adapted by Lady Sanity and Stanza Divan

42Track 1

Thou shall not kill…
Thou shall not kill…
Comes like man’s deaf nowadays
Lost in streams and audio plays

I knew a man
Stuck in those same ways.
Switched up his cards
And took a life for trade

I knew a man — Jordan — that killed
… Went back to his yard and blazed,
Skanked out to music, one man rave
But this guy’s movement was off, staggered ‘n strange


In each person there’s two dancers the right-hand and left-hand and both need
‘Oxygen! ’
In a Relationship you have two partners, one on either side who should both be
‘Oxygen! ’
Politicians should be philosophically brilliant, serving and giving their citizens pure
‘Oxygen! ’

44This approach we have adopted offers two main benefits over conventional translation practice:

  • It captures the artistic complexity of Oxygen by speaking to its Russian philosophical roots while re-imagining the drama as a dystopian vision of life in Britain today. In this way the adapted play opens up shared ground between Russia and the UK, rejecting the notion that they are separated by ‘foreignness’.

  • It responds creatively to the musicality of the original. The hip-hop lyricism and music directly embody the play’s spiritual yearning for a more utopian society which would cease to suffocate the younger generation.

45This project does not offer a one-size-fits-all formula for translation of new plays. Indeed, it challenges the very notion that a standardized approach is appropriate. Instead, it serves as a constructive example of how theatres and translators might reconceptualize play translation in a more holistic manner — in an ethos of creative multilingualism.

Creating Multilingual Grime and Hip-Hop

Rajinder Dudrah

46Grime — urban, gritty, digital, youthful, representing where you are from, and uncompromising in its engagement with social issues. With anything between 130 and 140 breakbeats per minute, the music genre has been likened in the British musical trade press to the originality and potential for disruption of British punk from earlier decades. Hailing initially from the East End of London in the early 2000s, it developed out of the pirate radio scene and electronic music genres of UK garage and jungle, dancehall, rap and hip-hop. It has marked out a regional scene beyond the capital, most notably in Greater Birmingham, and inspired international re-workings in East Asia and North America.

47From London, artists including Wiley, Dizzee Rascal, Kano, Lethal Bizzle, Ghetts, Jme, Skepta and Stormzy have brought grime to the attention of mainstream musical circles in the UK since 2003, leading to its global spread. Birmingham artists including The Streets, Devilman, Trilla, Slash, C4 and Lady Leshurr have also contributed to the genre’s development in the UK and beyond.

48More recently, grime gained further national and international attention when the artist Stormzy received two of the biggest awards at the 2018 Brit Awards at the London O2 Arena for British Male Solo Artist and Best Album of the Year with his Gangs, Signs & Prayer. In his freestyle rap performance during the show’s finale, he reminded the ceremony’s global audience of the urban social roots and critical commentary prevalent in the music. Stormzy critiqued the coalition government headed by Prime Minister Theresa May for their lack of response to the Grenfell fire in West London, and slammed the Daily Mail newspaper for its anti-black representations: ‘Theresa May, where’s the money for Grenfell?’ he asked, adding that the government ‘just forgot about Grenfell, you criminals, and you got the cheek to call us savages, you should do some jail time, you should pay some damages, we should burn your house down and see if you can manage this’ (Stormzy 2018).

49Grime artists like Stormzy are based in urban locales from where they draw their musical and lyrical inspirations. Regional, national and international inflections signal diasporic routes of migration and settlement, working-class upbringings and ecumenical religious backdrops (Stormzy 2017), engaging with the world and telling it like it is through an ‘in-yer-face’ no nonsense approach. The musical worlds of grime are eclectic, multicultural, hybrid and fusion-based, with local and regional UK dialects and accented catchphrases thrown in as markers of area postcodes. These worlds are often further invoked in MC or lyrical clashes, competitions or collaborations with other artists from around the country and elsewhere overseas.

50Grime and associated genres are an important and exciting fit to the work in our ‘Languages in the Creative Economy’ strand where artists not only engage creatively with different languages and mediums of expression, but also illustrate the possibilities for selfhood formation through livelihoods shaped by creative endeavours. Using popular music forms such as grime and hip-hop opens up new possibilities for playing with languages, artistic forms and the written content of formal text. This allows us to explore the creative uses of multilingualism in settings beyond conventional classroom and language-learning contexts.

51In this spirit, Joshua Holness aka RTKal from Birmingham worked with me to devise and perform a piece around ‘word, sound and power’ at the first Creative Multilingualism conference on Languages and Creativity at the Taylor Institution in January 2017 in Oxford. His performance with fellow artists Ky’Orion (Kyle Greaves) and Royalty (Reece Wilson-Haughton), also from Birmingham, drew on his spoken word background, rap and grime performances, Rastafarian beliefs, and multicultural and multilingual upbringing in the city. By drawing on word, sound and power as inter-related concepts of communication and performativity, RTKal and his colleagues demonstrated the liveness of language, its embodied nature and the vibrations of sounds made through speaking different snatches of languages with a rhythmic beat. In the roundtable discussion that followed between the artists, Simon Redgrave (Head of Creative Development from Punch Records, Birmingham, and one of our research strand’s cultural partners), Julie Curtis, audience members and myself, ideas of creativity and multilingualism were critically interrogated, whilst also affirming their potential for social good. Questions posed in this vein included the following: ‘How is creativity in the creative industries able to flourish in different urban and multicultural settings?’ and ‘Are young people from different socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds experiencing, and able to access, creativity equally or differentially?’

Fig. 3 RTKal performing at the first Creative Multilingualism conference, Taylor Institution, University of Oxford, 28 January 2017.

Reproduced by kind permission of Joshua Holness aka RTKal. Photograph by John Cairns (2017), CC BY-NC.

52Working with such artists inevitably means thinking through together the possibilities and challenges the play Oxygen will reveal in terms of cultural translation, transfer and performance. It means asking questions not only about the text and how best we are able to work with it afresh, in part or whole, for our strand-related performance, but also about the process of collaboration and the working practices between the artists and researchers. Working collectively in workshop or lab-style processes of dialogue, co-design, experimentation, discovery and public performance requires us to consider further the ways in which our research and practices are being informed and/or developed in the process of working together.

53The unique collaboration at the heart of our project was designed to generate new creatively multilingual possibilities, and to simultaneously draw attention to pressing social issues that concern young people today. In this way it responds directly both to the subject matter of the play Oxygen and to the subject matter that inspires hip-hop, grime and associated genres.

54When people think of plays written in contemporary Russia, they may not immediately think of diverse and multicultural urban settings and community languages in Britain. With the Research and Development of Oxygen, we hope to have showcased the exciting potential of mixing and playing with the artistic languages of the contemporary UK through theatre and popular music. In doing so, we also hope to have inspired others to consider multilingualism across cultures, languages and genres as a constructive trajectory for new creative endeavours.


Works Cited

Beckett, Samuel. 1977. Ends and Odds: Plays and Sketches (London: Faber and Faber).

Chekhov, Anton. 1988. Plays, trans. by Michael Frayn (London: Methuen).

Creative Multilingualism. 2020.

Curtis, Julie. 2015. Notes from public discussion at Liubimovka Festival, with Ivan Vyrypaev.

Dugdale, Sasha. 2006. ‘Oxygenating Theater: A Translator’s Note’, Theater, 36 (1), 45–47,

Featherstone, Vicky. 2015. ‘Afterword’, in Royal Court: International, ed. by Elaine Aston and Mark O’Thomas (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan), pp. 185–86,

Kislorod. 2009. Dir. by Ivan Vyrypaev (Ded Moroz).

Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Felix. 2000. Musik zu Ein Sommernachtstraum von Shakespeare, op. 61 (Wiesbaden: Breitkopf & Härtel).

Punch Records. 2020. [See also ‘Punch Records’, Creative Multilingualism,]

Shakespeare, William. 2013. The Tempest, ed. by David Lindley (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press),

Stormzy. 2017. ‘Blinded by Your Grace Pt. 2’, Gang Signs & Prayer (Merky Records).

Stormzy. 2018. ‘Stormzy — Blinded by Your Grace Pt. 2 & Big For Your Boots [Live at the Brits ’18]’, 4: 51, posted online by Stormzy, YouTube, 22 February 2018,

Tchaikovsky, Petr. 1892. Hamlet (de W. Shakespeare). Ouverture, mélodrames, fanfares, marches et entr’actes pour petit orchestre, op. 67 (Moscow: Jurgenson).

Vyrypaev, Ivan. 2002. Kislorod, performed by Teatr.doc, Moscow, October.

Vyrypaev, Ivan. 2004. Oxygen, trans. by Sasha Dugdale, staged as an internal rehearsed reading (date not recorded), Royal Court Theatre, London.

Vyrypaev, Ivan. 2006. ‘Oxygen’, trans. by Sasha Dugdale,

Vyrypaev, Ivan. 2009/10. Oxygen, trans. by Sasha Dugdale, dir. by Deborah Shaw, Royal Shakespeare Company/LIFT, Institute of Contemporary Arts, Stratford-upon Avon (17 September 2009); London (15–18 July 2010).

Vyrypaev, Ivan. 2017. ‘Open Letter in Support of Kirill Serebrennikov’,, 24 August,

Vyrypaev, Ivan. 2018. Oxygen, trans. by Sasha Dugdale, adapted and performed by Lady Sanity and Stanza Divan, dir. by Noah Birksted-Breen, produced by Sputnik Theatre Company, Birmingham City University and Creative Multilingualism, 11 October.

Weygandt, Susanna. 2018. ‘Revisiting Skaz in Ivan Vyrypaev’s Cinema and Theatre: Rhythm and Sounds of Postdramatic Rap’, Studies in Russian and Soviet Cinema, 12 (3): 195–214, 60

Find Out More

Birksted-Breen, Noah. 2020. ‘Vassily Sigarev and the Presnyakov Brothers: Staging the New Russia’, in Contemporary European Playwrights, ed. by Maria Delgado, Bryce Lease and Dan Rebellato (London: Routledge), pp. 168–84.
A chapter about the plays of two iconic Russian playwrights, whose work was critically acclaimed in Russia and the UK in the early 2000s.

Birksted-Breen, Noah, and Rajinder Dudrah. 2018. ‘Translating a Russian Play into Hip-hop Theatre: A Conversation’, Creative Multilingualism, 28 November,
A discussion of the dilemmas faced by the director and the curator of
Oxygen, from Russian page to British stage.

Creative Multilingualism (Slanguages: Oxygen). 2018a. ‘Oxygen: A Hip-hop Translation’, web page with films and other materials relating to the event on 11 October, Creative Multilingualism,
This web page brings together a film about the adaptation of
Oxygen, the recording of the performance, and related material by the participants.

Creative Multilingualism (Slanguages: Oxygen). 2018b. ‘Oxygen Translated into Hip-hop Theatre: The Full Performance’, 1: 03: 38, posted online by Creative Multilingualism, YouTube, 10 December 2018,
A video showing the workshop performance of
Oxygen, including a post-performance discussion with the adaptors, director and curator.

Curtis, Julie. 2018. ‘Collaboration and Ownership in Cross-Cultural Creativity’, Creative Multilingualism, 28 November,
This blog post gives an academic perspective on the process of adapting
Oxygen for a UK audience.

Dudrah, Rajinder, Philip Bullock, Julie Curtis and Noah Birksted-Breen. 2020. ‘Languages in the Creative Economy’, Research Strand 4 of Creative Multilingualism,
Research project on language diversity in the creative arts conducted as part of the Creative Multilingualism programme between 2016 and 2020. This chapter draws on that research.

Slanguages. 2020. A project under the aegis of ‘Languages in the Creative Economy’, Research Strand 4 of Creative Multilingualism,
The process of adapting
Oxygen into a hip-hop drama was carried out in the framework of Slanguages, which is both a project and a way of conceptualizing creativity through the prism of diverse ethnic-minority languages.


Permission to include their contribution was kindly granted by the following:

Noah Birksted-Breen (Fig. 2).

Rajinder Dudrah (Fig. 2).

Kyle Greaves aka Ky’Orion (Fig. 1).

Joshua Holness aka RTKal (Figs 1 and 3).

Liam Lazare-Parris aka Stanza Divan (Fig. 2).

Simon Redgrave (Fig. 1).

Sherelle Robbins aka Lady Sanity (Fig. 2).

Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. 1 Left to right: Simon Redgrave from Punch Records and artists Ky’Orion and RTKal, speaking after a performance at the first Creative Multilingualism conference, Taylor Institution, University of Oxford, 28 January 2017. Reproduced by kind permission of Kyle Greaves aka Ky’Orion, Joshua Holness aka RTKal and Simon Redgrave.
Crédits Photograph by John Cairns (2017), CC BY-NC.
Fichier image/jpeg, 27k
Légende Fig. 2 Left to right: Lady Sanity, Rajinder Dudrah, Stanza Divan and Noah Birksted-Breen at a Q & A following the Research and Development performance of Oxygen at Birmingham City University, 11 October 2018. Reproduced by kind permission of Noah Birksted-Breen, Rajinder Dudrah, Liam Lazare-Parris aka Stanza Divan and Sherelle Robbins aka Lady Sanity.
Fichier image/jpeg, 26k
Légende Fig. 3 RTKal performing at the first Creative Multilingualism conference, Taylor Institution, University of Oxford, 28 January 2017.
Crédits Reproduced by kind permission of Joshua Holness aka RTKal. Photograph by John Cairns (2017), CC BY-NC.
Fichier image/jpeg, 23k


Is Professor of Cultural Studies and Creative Industries at Birmingham City University. He has taught, researched and published widely across film, media and cultural studies, and is the founding Co-Editor of the scholarly journal South Asian Popular Culture. Rajinder is also Co-Investigator for the AHRC-funded ‘Diaspora Screen Media Network’, and two of his recent books include: The Evolution of Song and Dance in Hindi Cinema (co-edited with Ajay Gehlawat, 2019) and Bollywood Travels: Culture, Diaspora and Border Crossings in Popular Hindi Cinema (2012).

Is Professor of Russian Literature and Fellow of Wolfson College, University of Oxford. Her recent books are Mikhail Bulgakov (2017) and A Reader’s Companion to Mikhail Bulgakov’s ‘The Master and Margarita’ (2019); and she has edited a volume of scholarly essays and interviews with theatre-makers entitled New Drama in Russian: Performance, Politics and Protest in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus (2020).

Is Professor of Russian Literature and Music at the University of Oxford, and Fellow and Tutor in Russian at Wadham College, Oxford. He has published widely on various aspects of Russian culture from the eighteenth century to the present and has a particular interest in the reception of Russian culture abroad. His most recent book is Pyotr Tchaikovsky (2016).

Is a theatre-maker and scholar, specializing in new writing in the UK and Russia. He founded Sputnik Theatre Company — the only British company dedicated solely to bringing new Russian plays to UK stages. For Sputnik, he has directed and translated new Russian plays for Soho Theatre, BBC Radio 3’s Drama of the Week, Southwark Playhouse and Theatre Royal Plymouth ( He completed his PhD at Queen Mary University of London in 2017 on ‘Alternative Voices in an Acquiescent Society: Translating Russian New Drama for UK stages (2000–2014)’.


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