Just as the Paines Plough company brings David Greig's haunting new play Pyrenees to London, the Donmar revives its 1999 precursor. Being unfamiliar with The Cosmonaut's Last Message..., I found myself increasingly gripped by narrative delight as it unfolded: not only are many of its themes common to the other piece, but indeed it establishes two characters – discontented civil servant Keith and his speech-therapist wife Vivienne – whose history is resumed some years later in Pyrenees.
Here, Keith has become infatuated with Russian-born pole-dancer Nastasja, who in turn wrestles with loneliness because her father Casimir has been "in the sky" since she was six. He's not in heaven, but in a space station, one of two cosmonauts forgotten about when the political map was redrawn, still supposedly carrying out their assignment after twelve years of silence from terra firma. Keith fakes his suicide and vanishes; a Norwegian financier named Eric takes over his fixation upon Natasja; Oleg and Casimir continue to orbit the earth, trying even to recall the names and faces of those they left behind; Frenchman Bernard catches a brief burst of communication from them on his home radio-telescope, then all goes quiet (and, indeed, much the same can be said of his subsequent encounter with Vivienne).
Once again, Greig is concerned with simple yet profound matters of contact and separation, both physical and metaphysical: intellectual, emotional, even linguistic as Vivienne ministers to a patient with severe anomia. As ever, he works obliquely, through hints, echoes and resonances. Tim Supple's production leaves the audience to inhabit the spaces between the lines, though some scene changes could be more elegantly accomplished. An almost uniformly strong cast includes Michael Pennington as Keith and Bernard, Anna Madeley as Nastasja, Brid Brennan as Vivenne, Tom Goodman-Hill as Eric and Paul Higgins as Oleg the (ultimately) lone Major Tom-like figure suspended above the earthly action.
It's as much a thing of beauty as its companion piece, and they make a magnificent diptych. However, the broad sweep of Cosmonaut leaves one a little colder than the close human focus of Pyrenees. It's as if, in order to see the bigger canvas properly, we have to stand too far off to feel ourselves drawn into the picture.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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