Russian National Mail
Translated and Directed by Noah Birksted-Breen
Produced by Sputnick Theatre Old Red Lion
The old wooden furniture, old yellowing papers, books, and the black and white pictures denote the past. The cobweb like metallic structure, where letters, like flies, are trapped, in a cramped and dusty apartment, sets us up for a chaotic internal journey. We are to enter the lonely and eccentric world of Ivan Sidorovich, an ex-soldier and civil servant of the former Soviet Union.
The audience witnesses Ivan's psychosis through his obsessive letter writing habits. Not only does Ivan write to imaginary pen pals such as politicians, television broadcasters and comrades like Lenin, (Joseph Wicks), Trotsky, (Darren East), Yuri Gagarin, (Sam Emery) and Vivien Leigh, (Elisabeth Stuart) but he also responds to his own letters in these adopted personalities. Ivan's only current living correspondent is Queen Elizabeth II (Leila Gray), who, Ivan believes, is desperately in love with him. All discourse is of course fictitious, highlighting Ivan's internal dialogue with himself, where he exposes his hidden thoughts, desires and even his fears and insecurities, all masked in a bitter sweet humour.
The selection of celebrities, be it Russian or British, political icons, or a silver screen actress, cosmonaut or Martian seem like unrealistic associations. The audience seeks to make some connection between them all, but as explained in the programme, Russian National Mail " illustrates Keith Johnstone's notion of the theatre as a place for 'mad thoughts' " With this kind of poetic license, who needs any further explanations?
Ivan represents the carcass of a defeated political ideology, and is played with controllable stamina by Kevin McMonagle. Ivan's letters illustrate his sense of denial. One letter to the government highlights a passiveness towards his hardship, which one imagines is prolific across the country in the aftermath of communism. Here he thanks the government for their letter of congratulations to him for his services, stating that he has enough of everything necessary to live. However, Ivan is undernourished, surviving on only Chinese noodles (another political joke) and an active imagination.
Though the text provides some dark humour in places, there is an underlining current of sadness and victimisation about Ivan. The most poetic and moving part of the play arose from the wonderful choreography of puppeteers Zoe Hunter, and Darren East, (both recent graduates from Central School of Speech and Drama). Here we see Ivan's frail wife, made of brown paper and wire, attempt to clean Ivan's writing table, while Ivan sits motionless on his stool. We see her comforting the silent Ivan to no avail, before she herself dies and is carried off in a brown box. I would have loved to seen more interaction between the puppet wife and Ivan, or indeed between the rest of the characters. But perhaps Ivan was so alone and isolated that not even in his imagination will people talk to him directly.
The audience waits hopefully for something to happen, for some climax or conclusion; one lady described Russian National Mail as, "not going anywhere". The only Ivan 'event' is Ivan's last birthday celebration, where his correspondents fight for his modest possessions. This reinforces a familiar selfish world, but offers very little in the way of drama, making the production feel more like a story then a play. Bogaev may need to make more of his characters but I have a feeling we will be seeing a lot more of Sputnik Theatre raising the profile of contemporary Russian playwrights in the future.
"Russian National Mail" runs until 10th September
Reviewer: Lennie Varvarides