Jonathan Holloway's Red Shift company has been going through an artistically lean period during the last couple of years; such adaptations as Orlando and Death In Venice have showcased the company's style of resourcefulness and lyrical theatricality without fully rising to the material. Sadly, Red Princess, an original work by Nicholas McInerny about the daughter of Soviet president Leonid Brezhnev, is in much the same vein.
Inspired by a 1993 television documentary in which the champagne-fuelled Galina Brezhneva virtually tried to seduce the camera, McInerny has invented a fictional scenario in which Galina, taking delivery in the family dacha of a truckload of mementoes which had been impounded, is petitioned by the director of a Moscow circus school for funding to keep his institution alive.
The circus was a central part of Galina's life – two of her three marriages, and the most prominent of her extra-marital affairs, were with circus performers – and the motif is skilfully woven through the play. A series of flashbacks depict the daughter's growing fascination with this world of fantasy and imagination whilst Brezhnev père, rising through the party ranks, grows more concerned with political proprieties and enforcing the party line that even the circus must be intrinsically socialistic: there is no room in a communist state for illusions or wonders.
In the play's present, the circus becomes implicitly identified with the elevated status and glories of Galina's past – another illusion for which there is no room, although one to which the school director Yuri Fedorovich panders for his own ends. Galina is not the only one taking refuge in fantasy: her overwrought companion Yelena shows an equally naked need to believe in the visions she induces by starving herself into unconsciousness; for acrobat Nickolai, salvation must (but does not) come through his love for Yuri.
These ideas pop up throughout the play much as the actors pull props from the packing-cases which form the set (Galina herself emerges from such a casket-like package at the beginning), but Holloway and his cast do not quite shape them into a coherent whole. Fiz Marcus captures the profane, sozzled, autocratic side of Galina's character, but fails to take the imaginative flight needed to counterbalance it. Anstey Thomas's Yelena is a bundle of neuroses from start to finish, obscuring the line between her reality and her dreams, and the trio from the circus school never get to grips with the themes which underpin their lines.
The scene in which the circus performers strut their stuff for Galina across a makeshift tight-rope is crucial. However, lacking either the physical skills or the headroom for actual wire-walking, it is a limply symbolic portrayal which encapsulates the central problem with the production: that it cannot conjure up even a facsimile of wonder.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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