Life and Fate
Maly Drama Theatre of St Petersburg, Theatre Royal Haymarket, 20th May 2018
The Maly Drama Theatre of St Petersburg was founded in 1944 and is one of just three European theatre companies to have been awarded the title Theatre of Europe from the EU. (No I didn’t grasp the geography of that either). The company has been led by Lev Dodin since 1983 and is renowned for its Russian adaptations of theatrical classics and for its examination of the paradoxes and realities of culture, society, life and politics in the Soviet Union. The relationship between culture and government in Russia continues to fascinate me and I wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to see Theatre with a capital T come to London.
Life and Fate was premiered in Paris in 2007 and is based on the epic novel by Vasily Grossman, pictured above, which documents the life of the Shtrum family through the 1930s and WWII in Soviet Russia. Vasily Grossman was born in 1905, a Jew in Ukraine, and initially trained and worked as a chemical engineer. He took up writing full time after his one of his short stories In the Town of Berdichev attracted attention. In the 1930s he just about managed to stay the right side of the authorities, in contrast to many of his peers, but in 1938 his wife was taken into custody following the arrest of her ex-husband. He became a renowned war correspondent and was one of the first to enter Ukraine following its liberation, only to find his mother, and indeed the whole Jewish population of his hometown Berdichev, had been murdered by the Nazis. Ukrainian complicity in the genocide was covered up.
This personal history provided the material for Life and Fate which VG sought to get published in the thaw that followed Stalin’s death. However the manuscript was seized by the KGB and pronounced unpublishable for at least 200 years. After VG’s death in 1964 a secret copy was smuggled out and eventually published in Switzerland in 1980 and, finally, following Glasnost, in Russia though still with some passages removed.
It is then a Book with a capital B of immense significance. It is also a whopper extending to near 800 pages, echoing War and Peace. In another of the now not uncommon marital coincidences chez Tourist the SO has it near the top of her to-read list having been recently drawn into the world of investigative journalist Svetlana Alexievich, who also shines a light on Soviet and post Soviet life, albeit more recent decades. Unusually it was me that recommended her books. The cultural division of labour, with the SO doing the hard work of reading and writing, and me the easy jobs of seeing and hearing, art, theatre and music, is thus alive and kicking in the Tourist household.
Condensing down this work into three and a half hours of theatre must have been some undertaking, taking time (3 years in fact), effort, research and immersion. The play starts in 1943 after a prominent physicist, Viktor Shtrum, returns to Moscow and the Institute he works in. He lives in a flat with wife Lyuda, and schoolgirl daughter Nadya. Lyuda’s son from her first marriage, Tolya, has been killed in the war. Her first husband Abarchuk is a political prisoner in the gulag along with Krymov, the ex-husband of Lyuda’s sister Zhenya who comes to stay with the Shtrums.
The Soviet labour camp also houses another political prisoner Monidze and criminals Barkhatov and Ugarov. Their plight is contrasted with the prisoners in a Nazi concentration camp, Mostovskoy, Ikonnikov, Ershov and Osipov, overseen by SS officer Liss. There are scenes set in the Battle of Stalingrad with tank Colonel Norikov who is Zheya’s lover, his number two Getmanov and a runner Vershikov, and in the Moscow Institute with colleagues of varying political committment, Sevastnov, Sokolov, Shishakov and Kovchenko.
Fortunately there is no doubling up and the programme notes are excellent in providing context. For the scenes do deliberately mesh into each other, with some very well choreographed rearrangement of the set, and actors from one location often remain on stage when others take the lead. The chronology is also fluid and the presence of Victor’s dead mother Anna is made flesh in the most moving laments in between key scenes.
All this is intended to point up the equivalence between the totalitarian regimes of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia and in this the play overwhelmingly succeeds. Viktor is Jewish and this leads to his ostracism and expulsion from the Institute as the policies of nationalism and anti-semitism infect Stalin’s regime in ways that mirror the more overt ideology of its enemy. If Viktor repents and confesses he might be able to save himself and his family, and continue with his work, but only if he abandons the truth and his identity.
And then along comes the fickle finger of fate as Stalin himself rings up and “wishes him success in his work”. It seems Viktor is the key to unlocking a nuclear bomb for the Soviets. He is safe. Life goes on. Except that the horror around him doesn’t stop. And Viktor is eventually faced with signing a letter that he knows will condemn dissidents to death.
It is an immense journey which in many ways is cleverly captured on this smallish proscenium stage. BUT it is very Actorly and very Speechy. Declamation is the go to style of delivery and this, compounded by the subject, makes for a gruelling evening. I was fortunately promoted to a much better seat, sightlines being untenable in my normal cheapskate TRH perch This exaggerated the staginess and meant a fair bit of my attention was lavished on the sur-titles for Francine Yorke’s translation. Now, I hear you cry, what did you expect going to see an epic set in the darkest period of the C20 delivered in Russian. Elf the Musical? Well no, I get that this did, to all intents and purposes, do exactly what it said on the can but I do think the production, not the material of course, tended to the overly grandiose.
I would find it invidious to pick out any of the cast or creative team for particular praise though you cannot deny the sheer presence of Sergey Kuryshev as Viktor and Tatiana Shestakova as Anna. I was also struck by Daria Rumyanantseva as Nadia, Alexander Koshkarev as Shishakov and Oleg Dmitriev as Liss but like I say this is large-scale, and I mean large, ensemble acting which I rarely see.
I feel unworthy saying this but the point of this blog is to record what I see, hear and learn. I have no doubt though that the next time one of the major Russian theatre companies comes to London I will be there. As with the visit of the Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre of Russia last year (Smile Upon Us Lord review at the Barbican Theatre review ***) the style may not grab me, the stories obviously do. And I am grateful to those who financed this visit. Anything that promotes mutual understanding of our histories must surely be valuable.