Hampstead Theatre, London NW3
Opened 22 January, 2008

I was immersed in the Edinburgh Festivals when the failed Soviet coup took place in August 1991, and so missed almost all the drama; Penny Gold’s play (in a co-production with Southampton’s Nuffield Theatre under Patrick Sandford) brings it all back. The sensation of missing almost all the drama, I mean.
This is Gold’s second play about the coup; she has previously written the radio piece Three Days That Shook The World, which observed it from the outside. Here, the setting is President Gorbachev’s dacha, where he is holidaying with wife Raisa, daughter, son-in-law and two young granddaughters when they are placed in confinement by troops sent by the Moscow conspirators, aided by Gorbachev’s chief of personal security. Over three days they try first (successfully) to receive news from outside; then (unsuccessfully) to get word back out that Gorbachev had not, as was claimed, suffered an incapacitating stroke; and finally engage in brinkmanship, refusing to give an inch until restrictions on them are lifted. That, too, was successful, but by then events had moved on further still, propelled by Boris Yeltsin.
Throughout, the Gorbachevs talk: about what is happening in the dacha and in Moscow, what they might do, each other’s behaviour under stress. And, apart from the children, they all talk as if they can constantly feel the hand of history. Now, the trouble with the hand of history as a dramatist is that it’s seldom much good at naturalism. When he first finds the phone line cut, Mikhail remarks, “This is it, Raisa. It’s happening.” An exchange with his treacherous security chief turns ideological, as Gorbachev declares, “People must have the freedom to decide some of their own affairs.” The supportive Raisa affirms, “We face it together, Mikhail, always. United front.” Virtually every line sounds dedicated towards a heroic portrait. It feels like a work of propaganda: neither the impassioned nor the venomous kind, but the dutiful. The between-scenes video and audio echoes of the fate of the Romanovs at Yekaterinberg add a further sonorous boom to the proceedings. Husband and wife Julian Glover and Isla Blair as Mikhail and Raisa are fine actors, but these must be some of the least convincingly human roles in their careers, not excluding parts in Doctor Who at its flimsiest.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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