A CHILL BLAST FROM THE GULAGS
They painted Stalin’s words on the hut walls. “Instead of the onerous burden it was under Capitalism, work has become a thing of glory and valour”. Ragged, half-starved men and women trudged past that in labour camps. This play’s author is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, not imagining but remembering: he spent eight years in the gulags from 1945. It hasn’t been seen in London for thirty years (though a more serious-minded BBC televised it in 1965).
The author was imprisoned for “counter-revolutionary activities”, and as new prisoners come off the lorry in Mathew Dunster’s stark, vivid production they each recite their subsection of that same Article 58: even “failing to report an overheard conversation”. Among them are more conventional criminals: a black-marketeer sold penicillin and gramophone needles, an army sniper (Emily Dobbs, a superb tough performance) shot her unfaithful husband. But most are Article 58: political prisoners.
With fifty characters, a working foundry and building site it is daunting to stage: with 16 actors Dunster nimbly uses Solzhenitsyn’s stage directions as brief narrative. Anna Fleischle’s design uses the battered urban skeleton of Southwark’s new home well: pallets and planks scraping on the concrete, old tyres seeming to burn from within, an unforgettable lineup of naked prisoners, faces to the wall, in dim red light, beneath the wire.
The play’s authenticity is at once a strength and a weakness. Its strength is in delineating the top-down pressure to be corrupt: both victims and guards (mostly prisoners themselves) are fixed on their own survival. The commandant himself is under threat if he doesn’t increase production, the clerk struggles with bureaucratic lies, the foundrymen cheat, the girls do whatever it takes.
Cian Barry is Nemov, the newly convicted army officer who asks “In all the years we were in the war, defending Russia, was it as bad as this?” They laugh at him for a mug, a greenhorn. Worse! they say. As ‘work supervisor’ Nemov talks helplessly of decency and conscience while more experienced prisoners loot the newcomers’ baggage. Demoted, he has a brief respite as a powerless “dirty faced worker” with no temptation to tyrannize, but almost hysterically finds love with Lubya. Her bitter, much-used quality (conveyed with ruthless sweetness by Rebecca Oldfield) is hard to accept. She was a Kulak exile sold into marriage at fourteen, knows her value to men and submits pragmatically to the camp doctor (a smooth Ben Onwukwe) . Rob Tofield is the tubby venal cook, Ben Lee the sharp prisoner who usurps Nemov’s job.
But the gulag itself is the central character, and the detailed complex portrayal of its life impedes impetus and character development. Hence you get a historically fascinating evening rather than a great play. Jagged Fence deserves credit for bringing it to Southwark and Solzhenitsyn was a hero. But a bit more impertinence in adapting it would make it stronger.
0207 407 0234 southwarkplayhouse.co.uk to 2 Nov
Rating : three
Rating : three