Political theatre flourishes in Georgia

They hop around like bunnies to mock their president, step into cages to vent claims of political repression, and recite poetry at the top of their lungs.

Georgians have long been famous for their theatrical flair, and they are putting it on ample display in more than a week of street protests against President Mikhail Saakashvili.

While demonstrators stand for hours listening to rousing political speeches, the sidelines of the protests have become a stage for whimsical performance art.

Metal cages representing prison cells have been set up at the main protest sites, and another one appeared in front of the grand Rustaveli Theatre. From inside the cage, actors proclaimed that “something is rotten in our kingdom”—a nod to Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

The cages were inspired by a reality show featuring singer Giorgi Gachechiladze, who “imprisoned” himself in a “cell” at a local television studio.

Gachechiladze, whose brother is an opposition leader, began his protest in late January and said he would not come out until Saakashvili resigned.

Protesters have pelted Saakashvili’s official residence with carrots, released a bunny on to its grounds and performed a circle dance, hopping around and holding up their fingers to represent long bunny ears—all a way of saying the president acted like a scared rabbit during Georgia’s August war with Russia.

Saakashvili has been mocked for his skittish behaviour when visiting the war zone, when his bodyguards threw him to the ground in anticipation of a Russian air attack.

The Georgian army was quickly routed in the war, which resulted in the loss of territory and the stationing of Russian troops even closer to Georgia’s capital. Saakashvili’s handling of the war is a main cause of public discontent.

Footage of him chewing on his tie before a BBC television interview in August has inspired protesters to hang dozens of ties on the fence around his residence.

Fondness for the dramatic
The US—educated lawyer—who came to power five years ago promising economic and democratic reforms—has also been accused of using heavy-handed methods to suppress dissent and of living lavishly while many of his countrymen suffer in poverty. Saakashvili himself is known for a fondness for the dramatic.

He brandished a rose as he and his supporters stormed Parliament during Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution. After then-President Eduard Shevardnadze fled the building, Saakashvili ostentatiously drank from his tea cup.

Georgian directors and actors were some of the best-loved artists throughout the Soviet Union. But only in Georgia was the tradition of political satire allowed to flourish as early as the 1960s, when theatres began putting on plays that criticised Soviet life.

“When directors would arrive from Moscow they would say, ‘oh, are we no longer in the Soviet Union?”’ recalled prominent director Keti Dolidze.

“The virus of freedom and protest has always been part of the Georgian people and Georgian art.”

Georgians will tell you theatre is part of the national character.

“If 10 people are sitting at a table, even if they are drinking only tea, one will recite poetry, one will sing a song and another will play the guitar,” said Leo Melikishvili, a film director. “You’ll think you’re sitting with a group of actors, but it will turn out that not one is an actor.”

Saakashvili, now 41, was once an overwhelmingly popular figure, winning the 2004 presidential election with more than 96% of the vote.

Young, energetic and colourful, he was a welcomed change after Shevardnadze, a greying veteran of the communist era. But by 2007 Saakashvili faced increasing opposition and called an early election for January 2008, which he won with 53% of the vote.

Then as now the opposition has been weakened by its inability to unite behind a single charismatic leader who could challenge Saakashvili on the political stage.

The current protests have more than a dozen leaders, all with their own political party. They said on Thursday they would keep some of their activists at the main protest sites through the long holiday weekend, when the predominantly Orthodox Christian country celebrates Easter.

The mass protests were to resume in full force on Tuesday, they said.—Sapa-AP

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