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A Model for Mankind

James Sheldon
Cock Tavern Theatre, Kilburn
(2010)

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A Model for Mankind is a two-hour long Soviet era thriller that recovers from a bland first half to become far more intriguing after the interval. It is directed by Blanche McIntyre, who works well with her rather too young cast and clearly has a strong interest in dissident artists of the Stalin period, having already directed two plays by Bulgakov, most recently the excellent Molière at the Finborough.

American playwright James Sheldon has used as the basis for his melodrama the life and times of Richard Keightley's composer Dmitri Shostakovich, exploring his experiences in Stalinist Russia. In doing so, he tries to fathom the reasons for staying there and remaining alive when so many of his peers were either emigrating or disappearing forever at the hands of the secret police.

Strangely, the composer is not really the central character in his own play. That role is handed to a doctor, Anton Albedov, a close friend of Shostakovich portrayed by Paul Brendan. He survived the purges and old age and therefore is available in 1979 to appear before a kangaroo court attempting to rewrite history for the convenience of Leonid Brezhnev's government.

Albedov is defended by a young female advocate and former medical student. played by Shereen Martineau, who has her own reasons for wanting to help this client. In a play filled with coincidental connections, the prosecuting commissar turns out to be the great nephew of an authoritarian central figure in Shostakovich's life, Jack Lewis taking both parts.

While this trio grapple with a lack of information and memory, the audience are luckier, having the ability to travel back in time and witness the events that cannot properly be reconstructed in court.

The main story centres on Shostakovich's ménage à trois with Yelena Vyezhnova, a beautiful young writer and political activist, also played by Martineau, and the wild Jewish poet Issak Vashevsky.

Jonathan Bonnici shows great charm in this role, so that one can almost believe that this deeply politicised poet, who emigrates and then mysteriously dies in California, could have physically attracted both the musical genius and his lover.

The plotting largely rests on streams of blackmail upon blackmail in the two eras, so that eventually it becomes overly melodramatic.

A Model for Mankind's greatest value lies in the portrayal of life behind the Iron Curtain in two different periods and also some of the biographical tales about a great man, although these can get too mixed up in James Sheldon's artistic imagination and desire to create a gripping story.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher