the Presnyakov Brothers, translated by Sasha Dugdale
Royal Court Theatre Upstairs
Following Black Milk last month, the Royal Court introduces a second play depicting contemporary Russian life. Terrorism has the same translator and largely the same cast and in many ways its jocular tone and vivid black comedy come from similar roots.
The play consists of six scenes that seemingly have only very loose connections. In fact, by the end, it is clear that they are carefully intertwined and that their main theme is terrorism, though as much within the characters' heads as of an overt physical kind.
The first scene leaves its audience standing, literally. It is set on an airport runway and consists of relatively banal chatter between a group of waiting men and army officers about the consequences of a potential bomb on the runway. One of these men is the main linking thread between each scene, a husband and businessman who could do without the delay, played by Ian Dunn.
Once the all clear is given, the audience is finally allowed to sit down, having got a brief feel for what it must be like to be in a country fearful of a constant terrorist threat. Perhaps surprisingly, this play was written before 11th September and the Moscow Theatre occupation.
After the first of a number of rather beautiful and meaningful slow changes of Hildegard Bechtler's very stylish and versatile set, with the soldiers from the first scene clearing a bedroom in a scene reminiscent of Sarah Kane's Blasted, we fall into the midst of an affair.
A wife (Suzan Sylvester) and her lover (played by Paul Hilton) enjoy some rather boring (to them) sex games whilst discussing their respective spouses and giving an overall feeling of entrapment, especially as the woman is tied to the bed with underwear for much of the scene.
The next scene is set in an office where the typing pool, overseen by the rather tetchy Paul Read,y is one person short. Amidst light farce, the excellent Sheila Burrell discovers that their missing colleague is hanging in the psychologist's office. In near hysteria, the women exchange inanities about their meaningless lives and the fact that the dead woman's husband was having an affair.
It now becomes apparent that her husband and the boss's wife are the couple from the previous scene. This one ends hilariously as the psychologist returns with a dog under his arm and a wig on his head; almost identical twins.
From there to a park bench outside the lovers' flat, where two racially intolerant old women are debating the unfairness of life when you get to their age. Next, a scene in the bomb squad's locker room where officers are looking at a photo of a bomb scene where the only remains of a human being are a pair of hands and a pair of feet tied to a bed. At this point, the pattern has almost come full circle.
At last, the man finally catches his plane, haunted by the men who had been pestering him at the airport. Many of the loose ends are tied up but by no means all, as Ramin Gray's impressive direction leads us to the conclusion that some or all of this Russian nightmare might not have been anything more than just that; an experience that takes place in the man's head.
In subtle ways, Terrorism makes very pertinent comments on the nature of the war against terrorism that is currently all too close. It is at its most interesting when it extends this to the kind of neurotic terrorism that can go on inside one's head with equally terrifying results while a world order is breaking down.
The play can also be very thought provoking - the concept that ordinary people being killed is more shocking than famous ones is put all too poignantly.
The acting from the whole ensemble is good and the dreamlike quality of both the set and the acting ensure that this is an intriguing and very entertaining evening. The Royal Court is to be congratulating in continuing to source these gems from behind what is no longer an Iron Curtain.
Terrorism runs until 29th March.
This review originally appeared on Theatreworld in a slightly different version.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher