A RUSSIAN IN THE WOODS
The Other Place, Stratford-upon-Avon
Opened 29 March, 2001

Peter Whelan's latest and most autobiographical play is set more or less at the geographical epicentre and historical beginning of the Cold War, and concerns itself with the universal political climate which Whelan believes (plausibly) was engendered by that "thinking war" a world in which "duplicity and lies became the order of the day", and in which such political strategies inevitably came to pollute personal interactions as well.

Whelan's surrogate, Pat Harford (Anthony Flanagan) is a 19-year-old sergeant in the British army's Education Corps, posted to Berlin in 1950. Pat, an idealistic second-generation socialist with a taste for Russian literature which his commanding officer finds suspect in itself, is immediately enmeshed in the cross-currents of personal and power relationships around the office which he is assigned to guard for a weekend. It appears to be a fairly everyday tangle, but when in a spirit of camaraderie Pat invites back an American soldier one night, he is flung into a quagmire of machinations and counter-machinations involving both the regular Army and British and Russian military "spooks", and the more he struggles the deeper he sinks. The codes of decency he has imbibed through his youth are shown to be held in contempt by the very classes that he supposed revered them most.

Whelan's piece is structured as a memory play, which necessarily involves a degree of recounting and in places a "storytelling" mode of performance. Robert Delamere's direction overplays this during the first half; Delamere often requires a very open, even expansive performance style, in which we seem to see everything, whereas the point of the play is that we never do. The tone changes after the interval, in the crucial long interrogation scene; Colin Mace as intelligence sergeant Clive Burns, in particular, shows a fine sense of when to let off tactical explosions of temper and when to question with a cold, relentless rigour, but this is somewhat at odds with the overtness of his power games earlier.

Louis Hilyer's enjoyably sardonic Fraser, too, reins in nicely, but his delightful Act One extroversion seems in retrospect a little excessive when the character types which have been established are all unveiled as quite other in reality. By this stage, Flanagan's Pat is more acted upon than acting, trying to hang on to his personal and political romanticism while events and schemes whirl around him, denying him the slightest fingerhold. Despite Simon Higlett's evocative set design and the sparing use of audio montages to provide geographical and historical context, Berlin itself does not emerge as quite the character in its own right which might have been intended. It is a sensitive, thoughtful play in which head and heart are in close counterpoint throughout, but in production the respective strains take a while to mesh fully.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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