Adapted from Orlando Fige’s The Whisperers by Rupert Wickham
Poet and playwright Konstantin Simonov was indeed a favourite of Stalin. He was loaded with honours: three Orders of Lenin, the Lenin Prize and Hero of Socialist Labour, but he was hardly a son of the proletariat. His father, a general in the Tsarist army, left Russia after the Revolution; his mother, a real princess, stayed, despite being a suspect aristocrat, and married an officer in the Red Army. Konstantin grew up an enthusiastic Komsomolets. In 1938 he became the youngest member of the Soviet Writers Union and in 1941 his poem “Wait for Me”, written from the front when he was working for the Army newspaper Red Star and addressed to the actress Valentina Serova, whom he later married, brought him huge popular success.
In this one-man show, adaptor Rupert Wickham himself plays Simonov. The setting is the grand apartment that he was given by the state with its housekeeper, two maids, secretary and chauffeur. Now its chandeliers and furniture are covered in dust sheets but it is still dominated by a huge medallion relief of Josef Stalin.
He tells us of the pattern of his life, of his enthusiastic idealism, his total belief in what was being done to change his nation even as he saw its effect upon his family. Now, looking back, he speaks of the shame that takes such a terrible toll, turning him from the glamorous young soldier into a prematurely grey old man, just as he said in 1965, in answer to the laudatory speeches at the party given to celebrate his fiftieth birthday, “I am ashamed of many of the things I have done in my life … I shall try not to repeat the moral compromises I made.”
In the seventy minutes this plays, we get just enough of Simonov’s personal story to make us interested in the man but alongside it we also get a description of what the Russians suffered under Stalin, a life in which children were encouraged to denounce parents who might be thought against the state, of famine caused by the effects of collectivisation, of millions executed, many of them the very people who had founded and fought for the socialist state.
It is all too easy these days to see things in stark black and white and from the dominant Western perspective to label Capitalism good, Communism bad, but this is a much more honest picture. Simonov and this production are not presenting a critique of Communist belief but of the ruthless methods of Stalinism, of the blindness of those who were deluded by and went along with the regime until they themselves were compromised by fear or the wish to retain their own state benefits. I saw it with a school audience who will have gained some understanding of the good things as well as the bad things of the years of the USSR. Pupils will have gone away with knowledge interestingly presented with which to begin their own explorations of Soviet history.
“Stalin’s Favourite” runs for just over seventy minutes and Rupert Wickham holds the audience with his performance, despite the fact that it has no real dramatic incident and everything he talks about is looking backwards. There are attempts to make it a little more dramatic by lowering lighting states when crucially unpleasant episodes are being described but rather than enhancing the drama I found this an unnecessary distraction and much the same could be said for some of the use of music, though the Soviet anthem is used stirringly.
This production used the Unicorn’s Weston Theatre as an end stage, with lateral seating filling some of the stage apron and too often the performance seemed directed at this lower part of the auditorium and occasionally needing a little more volume for a theatre this size. However, that did not interfere with the overall effect and it works as theatre because Wickham brings this man to life as a real person. It may prove even more effective in the smaller theatres to which it will be touring over the next couple of months.
24 January: Carriageworks, Leeds; 27 January: The Lowry, Salford; 30 January: Kenton Theatre, Henley-on-Thames; 1 February Chapter Mead Theatre, East Grinstead; 6 February: Berry theatre, Hedge end; 8 February: Gulbenkian Theatre, Canterbury; 20 February: Strode Theatre, Street; 22 February: Birmingham Old Rep; 27 February: Swindon Arts Centre; 29 February: Ivy Arts Centre, Guildford; 7 March: Rhodes Arts centre, Bishop’s Stortford; 16 March: Taliesin Arts Centre, Swansea; 20 March: Capstone theatre, Liverpool; 26 March: Lakeside arts Centre, Nottingham and 28 March: artsdepot, London.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton