Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

Opened 24 September, 2009

*** / ***

"Revolutions" is intended to be a major four-year celebration by the Royal Shakespeare Company of Russian and Soviet drama (RSC supremo Michael Boyd did much of his training as a director in Moscow), and on the press day it sometimes felt like the old Soviet era. Not only was the train service to and from Stratford-upon-Avon cancelled all day without prior notice, but that suspect cadre of reactionary intellectuals, i.e. we, the critics, were being admitted after a month of previews to the penultimate performance of each of the two plays: each can be seen again next Thursday only.
However, these are petty cavils when set against the events of The Grain Store. Natal'ia Vorozhbit depicts life on a Ukrainian collectivised farm in the early 1930s, when Stalin's policies led to millions of deaths from famine. Particular focus is laid on the tortuous relationship between Mokrina, the daughter of a comparatively comfortable kulak family and thus a target of especial persecution, and Arsei, a peasant trained as a Party activist who secretly feeds her.
Samantha Young and Tunji Kasim turn in a pair of strong performances at the centre of a production by Boyd which fully realises his ensemble vision for the RSC. A host of familiar faces crop up in minor roles, from Sam Troughton as the leader of a travelling agitprop theatre troupe right up/down to Greg Hicks as a tramp and Kathryn Hunter as a peasant activist who, after being locked in the grain store of the title, begins to experience quasi-religious trances of truth-telling and prophecy.
This aspect feels like an awkward and superfluous business to British sensibilities, although I suspect that to Russian and Ukrainian ones it is a natural outgrowth of the play's dealing with the official Stalinist suppression of Orthodox Christianity. However, it remains at odds with a predominantly direct depiction of a major issue or event.
This central trait is shared with The Drunks by Mikhail and Vyacheslav Durnenkov, which addresses a matter recently referred to by Russian president Medvedev as a "pandemic", alcoholism. When protagonist Ilya (Jonjo O'Neill) returns from the Chechnyan war with a piece of shrapnel in his brain, it makes him unable to drink, which is at once the currency and the curse of the entire rest of the town. He also finds himself being used as a war-hero poster-boy for three competing mayoral candidates, all advised by the same eminence grise. This latter figure is played with fearsome cool (and disconcerting contact lenses) by Christine Entwisle, one of a number of semi-regulars in the productions of director Anthony Neilson. (This is also the first time Neilson has directed his father Sandy on a public stage.)
The piece is a blacker descendant of The Government Inspector, and Neilson incorporates extra Gogolian verve into Nina Raine's translation. Yet despite the big issues involved, neither play really feels weighty enough to stand in the first rank of a programme of work as significant as the RSC envisages this to be.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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