The Common Good
Arcola Theatre, Dalston
The Chernobyl disaster - a catastrophic leak at a nuclear plant in 1986 - is within the living memory of many: I remember dire warnings of an ominous nuclear-reactive cloud drifting towards the UK from the former U.S.S.R.
Although criticism and poetry has covered the subject to some extent, there does not seem to have been much in the way of fictional dramatic representation, a situation redressed here by writer Warren Drew who explores the hidden Chernobyl through focus on protagonist Antonin, whose own story ignites and fleshes the vignettes that surround him on stage: soldiers, brothel keepers (one female, one male), a prostitute, her client, an infected peasant, and a reporter who hears more than she bargains for as Antonin's horrific, vodka-addled tale unfolds.
Each character neatly encapsulates the human underbelly of what happens to those entangled in events that engulf their lives, with Jonathan Goldstone's well-placed use of lighting bringing focus to the little dots of life - the singular identities - that become part of a collective, defined in the larger world by a single, defamiliarised signature: Chernobyl.
Director Jaclyn McLoughlin and producer Karin Sun vivify a story of the living-dead, accompanied by intelligent playing from a gifted and tightly-knit cast who showcased the production earlier this year at the Roundhouse, Camden, and are now installed (until Saturday only) in the Arcola's Studio K: a small, air-craft hanger type of venue that seems totally fitting for stark depictions that, as for most tragedies, are relieved by occasional flashes of dark humour.
As the play tells us, we are witnessing a disagreement between nature and man where ordinary people become driven by their basest animal instincts merely to survive. Orwell's premise of equality springs to mind and seems to fit initially, but is reduced to a fallacy here: soldiers who appear to have the upper hand suffer likely infertility in often enforced conditions, trading alcohol, drugs and venting their frustrated spleens on the disgustingly injured (to whom they must give succour) and the women (who provide temporary escapism). All are equal in misery.
Bret Jones makes the flesh creep nicely as Vladimir, a man with a fetish for silk stockings and girls he can belittle for sex. Darren Daly is alarmingly commanding as officer Henrik whom one feels has been 'soldiered' into his current violent, vile persona.
But it is Tristan Bernays who shines most brightly as Antonin, a poet-soldier tortured by memories of the life and love he let go, now seeking some kind of personal redemption in the saving of prostitute Nichola (Joanne Gale), a deaf, dumb and lame girl whose condition could provide metaphorical summation: the closing of the world's ears to an unsavoury disaster, the lack of voice for many - and the limping, injurious effects of a nuclear nightmare, the ramifications of which have not gone away. Highly recommended.
Reviewer: Anita-Marguerite Butler