BLISS - AT JUNCTION THEATRE
Plays set in revolutionary Russia are never going to do favours for that country’s tourist industry. From ‘Caucasian Chalk Circle’ to ‘Heart of a Dog’, the cruel monochrome of bleak suffering, gnawing hunger, peasant stoicism; the corruption of power mediated by vodka fuelled gallows humour - it’s a grim landscape, a savage ‘39 steppes’.
Frazer Grace’s latest play, premiered in this country at the laudable Hotbed Festival, treks through those same grey contours but opens new doors into the human heart. The setting is southern Russia in 1920, a savage civil war has reached a sort of exhausted stalemate and Nikita, a young soldier from the town has returned on foot. He has known only marching, fighting and hunger. But he is a changed man – what he has seen and experienced haunts his fractured psyche. There is a glimmer of hope in all this wretchedness – he meets Lyuba, an equally impoverished young woman who studies to become a medical doctor; a promise of a Chekhovian escape. She can’t afford books so has to learn whole chapters from medical texts by heart. Like Nikita, she is alone in a brutal world but now they have each other – or do they?
In a long first half, we follow the relationship between the damaged young man and the ever hopeful girl; we meet Nikita’s rough diamond father Mikhail and Lyuba’s close friend and soulmate Zhenya. The couple marry but something prevents the coldness in Nikita’s heart (and the Russian winter) from bringing into their dark world any kind of bliss.
The second half lightens the mood somewhat as we find Nikita sunk to the lowest depths – a starved beggar cleaning latrines for a pair of comic rude mechanicals – the peasant couple Vlass and Paulina. Throw in a bizarre revolutionary commissar with a gramophone (searching hopelessly for beauty among the beastliness), a kind of redemptive ending and you have a really substantial piece of new theatre which for all its grim intensity points to something offering a glimmer of hope.
The production deftly directed by Paul Bourne involves an ensemble of talented actors. Patrick Morris did a great job in the two roles of lascivious father and kind but dim Vlass. Bess Roche convinced as the strong yet vulnerable Lyuba and Caroline Rippin presented a startling contrast between the fiercely intelligent Zhenya and the hilarious babushka. Central to the whole play of course was Robbie Aird as the tragic Nikita and his battle for what now we would call PTSD – it was a hugely moving account.
The production design was simple but thoroughly effective; a series of wooden pallets and boxes that could be arranged into a myriad of shapes and there was a hauntingly beautiful soundtrack by Michaela Polakova. A dark stage illuminated and marked out by a string of yellow bulbs gave the whole narrative a sense of folk drama – a kind of 20th century Grimm’s fairy tale that was at the same time distancing and yet intimate.
Though I felt that the play needed a bit of trimming in the first half, Bliss is an important new work and one that deserves to be seen. It is a testament to the collaboration between Menagerie Theatre Company and their Russian colleagues – a fine example of cross-cultural collaboration. It was just the right opener for the Hotbed Festival. The Russia of the 1920s may not have been a blissful place, but at the Cambridge Junction, it was all joy. Shame though about my Russian holiday plans.
The Hotbed Festival runs to Sunday evening