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Into the Whirlwind

Evgenia Ginzburg, stage adaptation by Aleksandr Getman
Moscow Sovremennik Theatre
Noël Coward Theatre

Into the Whirlwind production photo

Anticipation was running high amongst those in the know in the London Russian and theatre communities: the Moscow Sovremennik Theatre was coming to town for the first time with three plays from its vast repertoire. They have toured Russia, Ukraine, America, and Europe, but never the UK. What an oversight - a theatre that takes its tradition from the Moscow Arts Theatre and Stanislavksy!

An oversight rectified at last by the funds of Roman Abramovich and the generosity of Sir Cameron Mackintosh, the Sovremennik brings, for only two shows of each, an adaptation of Evgenia Ginzburg's gulag memoirs Into the Whirlwind and Chekhov's Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard.

The Sovremennik (the Contemporary) set up shop in 1956 three years after Stalin's death, reviving the Stanislavsky Method and what they call 'psychological theatre', creating an actor's ensemble theatre that could reach a new hungry generation. A bold move in the days of state controlled theatre.

Of course, there were the usual censorship problems, but their tenacity held out, surviving even a split in its leadership in 1970 when one of the original founders, the well-known actor Oleg Efremov, left to run the Moscow Arts Theatre. Resisting merging with the more famous theatre, the Sovremennik pulled through hard times and appointed Galina Volchek, one of its founder members, as artistic director, again going against the grain. Forty years later she is still at the helm.

Perestroika opened more doors - the chance to tour abroad, and with the removal of censorship the opportunity for new material. Ginzburg's Into the Whirlwind was one of the first productions to prove that the times were a-changing.

At home this production was met with ovations and tears, and in the 1990s in America, where it won the Drama Desk Award, it was praised by Arthur Miller, and by Jane Fonda who found it a raw knuckle ride.

An historian, a teacher, a loyal Communist and the wife of the Kazan regional party boss, Evgenia Ginzburg's memoir of her arrest, imprisonment and subsequent years in the camps of Siberia is an astounding feat of memory, but then she was renowned for that (reciting the whole of Evgeniy Onegin from memory to her fellow women prisoners in the transit train so convincingly that the guards turned the carriage upside down looking for the book - books were banned), and a record of dignity and integrity sustained in the face of the inhumanity and sadism during the Terror years of Stalin's Purges.

Above all it is an attempt to understand the Terror, and its betrayal of a generation of faithful Communists. How could millions be betraying a cause, surely it is one man betraying his people... Ginzburg understood that instinctively. A gripping page-turner, as my sleepless night testifies, chilling to read, but impossible to put down.

For Russians it reaches deep into their souls. Written after her eighteen years' imprisonment, published in the West in 1967, it saw light of day in its own country in 1989. She didn't live long enough to see its publication (dying in 1977), just as she never saw her husband, mother and two of her children ever again after her casual arrest.

Expecting a searing production in its own language with surtitles for the non-Russians in the audience - and I can't swear to it, but judging by the noise and the standing ovation and the endless bouquets of flowers, the Russian ratio was high - I was disappointed to find an old-fashioned stodgy static reading of a representative section of the book. It did not send shivers down the spine.

What potential; what a missed opportunity. The pre-show buzz was high; a red slogan draped in the Noël Coward Theatre foyer proclaiming "Long Live Stalin" (ironic, of course), excited Russian voices - this was to be the real thing

The lower depths: on a bare stage with grills and bars and cages, jarring soundscape, and little to relieve the darkness but the occasional blinding light, Marina Neyolova, a stalwart of the company since the 1970s, plays the intelligent thirty-year-old Ginzburg worried sick about her little children. But Neyolova is older (born 1947) than Ginzburg's mother was at the time of her daughter's arrest.

She seems to care more about her hair-do, patting it constantly, and straightening her clothes, than reaching into the part. She reminded me of Chekhov's prescription for new theatres and new forms to brush away the famous actress benefit style performances. I can see her as Ranevskaya, whom she is scheduled to perform.

Another old-timer of the theatre, Liya Akhedzhakova, was applauded on her entrance, breaking any little tension there was. Marina Khazova's acting was sincere but inaudible, so one was grateful for the surtitles. Vladislav Vetrov was a marvellously disdainful interrogator, Tsarevsky a former pupil of Ginzburg's, but he was on too briefly to register. I look forward to his Vershinin.

Three hours to cover the first two years of Ginzburg's account and at such a turgid pace - though the sorry tale needs to be told again and again - that the first half felt like the prison sentence itself.

The second half picks up when more women are thrust together and we hear their stories, which would be farcical if they weren't so terrible: some arrested for not denouncing their friends. And the differences of understanding as to what Marxism and Communism mean... The best part is the old Socialist Revolutionary, who has seen it all before (Alla Pokrovskaya wonderfully gruff).

The double-speak, the horror, the stunned disbelief, the interrogators becoming victims in their turn, the revolution eating its own, leavened slightly by a whiff of a surreal obedient mentality and peasant malapropisms (Tractorist for Trotskyist - 'but I've never been near a tractor in my life'), and the women singing a Soviet rousing march as they head for Kolyma, where at least there will be fresh air, and none of these stale sweatboxes.

Lambs to the slaughter, little do they know as they stand hopefully at the mesh in an image we know from Auschwitz. But then, as one of the imprisoned foreign women (a German actress) says, the Soviets learned a lot from the Nazis, not least how to torture.

Orwell, Kafka, Beckett, Pinter have explored this terrain - if only some of their art had rubbed off on this wordy production. Reading the surtitles, you might as well read the book.

"Three Sisters" 24th & 25th January 2011
"The Cherry Orchard" 28th & 29th January 2011

Reviewer: Vera Liber