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Little Eagles

Rona Munro
Royal Shakespeare Company
Hampstead Theatre
(2011)

Little Eagles production photo

For some reason, although filmmakers can never get enough of outer space, it is a topic rarely tackled on stage.

Ironically, two significant plays that have considered the space race from the Russian side have both been written by Scottish playwrights. While David Greig's snappily titled The Cosmonaut's Last Message to the Woman He Once Loved in the Former Soviet Union looked at the subject through the eyes of invented characters, Rona Munro's contribution, Little Eagles, is more determinedly biographical.

At its centre are three key figures in Soviet history. Fifty years ago this month, Major Yuri Gagarin indelibly wrote his name in history as the first man in space. Equally well-known, Nikita Khrushchev was the country's hard-drinking hard-swearing ruler at the time.

The joker in this pack is Sergei Pavlovich Korolyov. We first meet him close to death in one of Stalin's Gulags, saved by the ministrations of a doctor with whom his life would thereafter be entangled. Soon though, he is picked out by the next Premier himself and reassigned by Brian Doherty's Khrushchev to lead the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic's mad (the adjective has been carefully chosen for its multiple meanings) dash to beat the Americans into space.

For 2¾ hours, Rona Munro and a 17 strong cast directed by Roxana Silbert for the RSC mix together the private and the public sides of the Soviet mission that got Gagarin into orbit ahead of the Americans but thereafter faltered due to lack of funds and commitment.

On one level, we get the excitement of Korovlyov, made utterly believable by the excellent Darrell D'Silva, and Gagarin repeatedly defying overwhelming odds to win the race. As the scientist develops the technological side, Dyfan Dwyfor's Gagarin fights with three comrades to be the Little Eagle who will become legendary. Somewhere in the background we also see the men's families but they are of as little consequence to them as to us.

Throughout the play, we are reminded of the country's politics from the gulags to the underhand political machinations and a desperate need to prove that communism can outstrip capitalism. This is exemplified by the cosmonauts and the technology that they propel further and further from home base and safety.

The best symbol of all is the almost incestuous relationship between the Russian space programme and their development of inter-continental ballistic missiles using almost the same technology and manpower.

The first man dizzily reaches space before the interval, which leaves a considerable stretch of play to be filled. In their efforts to outwit the Americans, the Russians became increasingly desperate to prove their mettle, trying the impossible with inevitably tragic results.

In a cast that will be familiar to anybody who followed the RSC's Shakespeare season at the Roundhouse either side of Christmas, Noma Dumezweni and Greg Hicks prove as reliable as ever, while Samantha Young gives a sympathetic performance as Gagarin's almost forgotten wife, Valya.

Little Eagles is an ambitious play given a worthy production. While it may extend a little beyond the ideal duration for its subject matter, this is a fascinating take on both the space race and the former USSR, which also showcases Darrell D'Silva at the head of a strong cast.

Playing until 7th May

Reviewer: Philip Fisher