COMRADES AND CANNIBALS
“It’s not just seven naked men eating each other” must be the most startling aplogia yet for a play; but the author David Ian Lee and the director Joao de Sousa have a point. This shattering story bases its ninety graphic, violent minutes on a brief anecdote of cannibalistic wartime horror once mentioned by George Steiner. It does make a serious attempt to imagine extremes of stress, and wonder how human beings – half animal half angel – would reconcile themselves to such behaviour over 39 days of horror. And as the characters are military, it has particular interest in the dissolution of discipline, structure and status. Whether this is a valid exercise each viewer must judge. I’m not sure.
The men are Soviet soldiers in 1944, thrown naked into a monastery cellar after the Waffen SS capture them and set their dogs to eat others alive. Their death-prison is the old meat-curing room. The senior officer, Comrade Captain Viktor Nikolov (they’re all very formal to start with, albeit naked) is young and green, but injured, bleeding, struggling to keep authority. He refuses to sanction drawing lots for cannibalism, but dies first. Some of the men are older, veterans of the October Revolution and the terrible starvation sieges of Leningrad. One youngster, Yuri, is halfwitted and another, Georgi, a farm boy. At first they quarrel, starve, thirst and resort to licking the dew off the stones in turn and drinking their own semen. Once, movingly, they sing the Internationale. At first, none of them will break the taboo by eating the dead officer.
But then the brutal Drossov is killed in a violent scuffle: even then the men circle warily, reluctant to take the first bite. Until they do. It becomes routine. Thomas Holloway is a touching childlike Yuri, protected from ever looking “in the corner” by the sweet protective Georgi (Matt Houston). Whose task, made easier by the adoption of makeshift tools like sharpened femurs, is butchery. We are not spared watching it: there’s a stripped torso, several heads, and much dim-lit truffling for tripes pulled out from below or behind the naked corpses (who lie more horridly still than any actors i have yet seen die). Two people in the audience were helped out. One was retching.
There are some remarkable interactions: violent and explicit or quietly moving: Matt Houston’s decline is particularly touching. Yuri’s confusion flowers into full- blown religious mystical speech, not entirely convingingly but a good coup de theatre, which the play needs by that time. And when around day 26 two older men talk about their families and old friendship at home in Kursk, they evoke an unbearable intimate sadness. Even while starkers, daubed in blood, intermitently gnawing human offal and having just drawn lots for the next murder by using – agh – knucklebones. Not sure whose.
So where does this get us? Is it redemptive, as the author hopes? or sadism, war- porn for an age when theatres find it hard to shock? It is certainly overlong – one should not be counting heads to see how many more deaths till we get out. I was going to say it needs the fat trimming off the script, but under the circumstances let us grope for another metaphor, possibly drawn from something comelier. Like gardening.
All in all, the actors give a brave tour de force and the play does ask questions about human duality: meaty body and lofty spirit. One thing I’d deny is what a PR puff calls it – “darkly funny”. Not so. Or at least only once: when the university- educated officer is available to be eaten, Drossov observes “When theres nohing left to count, an economist should be repurposed”. Don’t tell Peston.
http://www.edfringe.com to 24 August