Cottesloe Theatre, London SE1
Opened 26 October, 2004

Declan Donnellanís first National Theatre production for a decade has all his trademarks of thoughtfulness, invention and vivacity.  He animates the absurd farce and the mordant social and political satire of Nikolai Erdmanís 1925 comedy, and his own translation is more beautifully judged still.  What it doesnít convey is a sense that any of it matters.

This is all the more odd, as Donnellan has argued plausibly that the parallels with our own time are striking: a world in social and political flux, on the one hand distracted from the really important issues and on the other putting their faith in a strongly defined ideology and the image of a strong, resolute leader.

One can see all the correspondences.  When Pavelís mother protests mildly that she doesnít know what pictures on one's wall are for because she doesnít read the newspapers, we recognise the combination of news-overload and media-ostrich, so to speak.  Businessman Olymp Valerianovichís desire to have his family marry into the Communist apparat is a familiar kind of corporate/political alliance; Pavelís consequent claims to be a mini-Commissar, waving around his certificate of ďmandateĒ, is even more familiar: chasing the money, chasing the power, being corrupted thereby. Olympís brother is a die-hard Tsarist who, on encountering Pavelís family cook in a sumptuous gown, mistakes her for the Romanov princess Anastasia and imagines an imminent royalist restoration: he clings to his outdated view, deluding himself and mythologizing in order to shore it up. There are no end of topical figurative readings.

We see all this, but as if through the wrong end of a telescope: the images are clear, but rather than immediate they seem still further off. We are distanced right from the start, as Donnellan has his cast engage in self-consciously grotesque stop-start jazzy cavortings whilst setting the furniture (a device repeated at each scene change). It feels Brechtian: disengaging us from the action so that we keep pondering the significance for us of the events shown. But we donít.

Similarly, the final sequence is part-Brecht, part-Pirandello, as the house lights go up, characters address us directly and their world and ours bleed into each other. But thereís no sensation of shock or challenge, and the final apocalyptic rending of the set simply overdoes the metaphor. What Donnellan intended as trenchant comment comes over in the end as no more than a skilfully wrought curio.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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