The Drunks; The Grain Store
Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Sooner or later RSC chief Michael Boyd was going to make a Stratford move on his Russian background. Trained in Moscow at the Malaya Bronnaya Theatre (1979–80), Boyd got used to KGB agents sitting in on his rehearsals. It’s a tribute to the best of Russian theatre that the authorities have always needed to keep an eye on it. Always, and quite rightly, keen to extend the RSC’s frontiers beyond the Shakespearean canon, Boyd has just launched ‘Revolutions: an exploration of a new generation of post-Soviet theatre’.
The programme has already featured five play readings that included ‘a buoyant monologue about life in the Russian Navy and the best way to cook a dog’, and ‘a beautiful and cinematic epic’ in which a family tragedy ‘forces five-year-old Alina to live near a disused railway line with her Aunt Irma’. Having foregone attendance at these readings, it’s left for me to report on the two substantial RSC commissions that have been running in the Courtyard.
So, welcome first to The Drunks by the brothers Mikhail and Vyacheslav Durnenkov. Translated by Nina Raine, directed by Anthony Neilson, the new play chimes perfectly with President Medvedev’s recently announced campaign against what he calls ‘the pandemic of drunkenness’. The story is of a brain-damaged soldier returning home from the front. The mayor, the police chief and the editor of the local rag vie with one another to enlist him as a talismanic war hero in their campaigns to win the upcoming election.
Ilya, the much put-upon innocent, is an island of sobriety in the tumultuous vodka seas tossing around him. Disastrous, therefore, are the effects upon him as one and all deploy alcohol to win him round to their side. An inexplicable directorial decision has Jonjo O’Neill, otherwise outstanding as Ilya, attempt an unconvincing Russian accent, while everyone else makes do with varieties of their native English.
The action tumbles along pretty predictably in a sequence of short scenes in which drunken caricatures behave just as one would expect, though Darrell D’Silva (police chief) and Richard Katz (editor) make something more arresting of their roles. At its best the atmosphere is knock-about Gogolian but, running to a couple of hours without an interval, The Drunks outstays its welcome. Unless I’m missing something, or the KGB has got there first, it seems strange that, although you gather that Ilya has been wounded in Chechnya, the play comes across as politically quite innocuous.
With The Grain Store, translated by Sasha Dugdale and directed by Michael Boyd, we enter more troubling territory. Its author Natal’ia Vorozhbit is a Ukranian and her play is about the catastrophic effect on a single village of the collectivisation imposed by Stalin from 1929. In the ensuing famine, the death toll may have been as high as seven million. Put that unimaginable figure alongside those for the Nazi and Maoist terrors. ‘No poetry after Auschwitz,’ argued a Germanic sage. You cannot but help take his point, yet also have to recognise that art may be the most potent way to comprehend the enormity. The Grain Store seeks to do so, and with a theatrical vocabulary intermingling narrative realism with harlequinesque interpolations (indebted to Meyerhold) and satiric comedy. John Mackay is first rate as the Party’s ruthless enforcer, impresario of a scarcely watchable show in which the starving peasantry are rehearsed in a song and dance routine (supposedly to assure an American journalist that all is fine and dandy) that is inevitably also a dance of death.
Samantha Young and Tunji Kasim are the young couple whose love-hate relationship reflects the chasm between the people and the Party, Kathryn Hunter memorable as a wizened old lady looking back and down on the terrible events from a swing above the stage, while you’re mildly surprised to discover Greg Hicks in the diminutive role of a tramp. Excellent company work, though the production often topples over into slapstick (quite literally when Patrick Romer’s ‘Burier’ tumbles into the grave in the embrace of his latest corpse). Once again the play is too prolix, as in presenting no fewer than three rehearsals of the dance routine. The comedy simply isn’t sufficiently sharp and focused enough to carry the albeit intolerable burden it has to bear.
‘Revolutions’ is billed to preoccupy the RSC for four years, culminating ‘in a major Russian contribution to our 2012 Olympic celebration’ — an eccentric ambition for a quintessentially British enterprise? It will encompass classics by Pushkin (Boris Godunov) and Gogol (Dead Souls), as well as many more works from Putin’s Russia. But if the present two plays are typical, you have to wonder whether Boyd should be investing so heavily in young Russian playwrights and coaching British actors to grapple with the problematics of their work rather than shopping around nearer home. Spies tell me that theatre in Moscow today is incredibly rich and various. Did Boyd give a thought to importing plays and performers from there to give us a taste of Russian theatrical genius at the top of its game?