Theatre of Gulags

Devised English production by the cast from Anya Ostrovskaia's translation and shaping of verbatim texts
Vault Cavern Leake Street

Theatre of Gulags
Theatre of Gulags Credit: Michael Tang
Theatre of Gulags Credit: Michael Tang

The lethal paranoia of the Soviet Union’s Stalinist regime sent millions of people to the gulags (labour camps) where many died due to the appalling conditions. A sizeable number were executed for the flimsiest of supposed crimes.

Theatre practitioners were not exempt. Theatre of Gulags lets us glimpse the experience of four of them in a small promenade exhibition that concludes with a brief performance of a short extract from King Lear.

As a group, we walk the length of the Vault Cavern where small exhibits stand on either side of two hanging hessian screens upon which are projected short film clips of actors playing the artist connected to the exhibit speaking about themselves.

Exhibit one gives us Les Kurbas (Lilit Lesser), regarded as the most important Ukrainian theatre director of the 20th century, transported to a labour camp in 1933 and executed along with hundreds of other prisoners in 1937.

Walking across to the second exhibit, we see Natalia Sats (Daniel Grimston), who made great contributions to Russian children’s theatre. She was sentenced to five years in a labour camp followed by exile to Kazakhstan.

We move to the back of the first screen to encounter the filmed words of the musician and openly homosexual (till it was made illegal in 1934) Roma Vadim Kozin (Janeks Babidorics), who was consigned to a Labour camp for being homosexual in 1944.

Our final screening is of Ukranian Jewish writer actor and puppeteer Hava Volovich (Eva Mashtaler), who was, in 1937, sent to a camp for some fifteen years.

Since all four continued with their theatre in the camps, the event ends with an imagined staged extract from a camp rehearsal of King Lear involving Natalia as Lear, Hava as the fool and Les directing.

The project seems incredibly important and I found some of it interesting, but it was hindered inevitably by the cavern’s terrible acoustics that made it especially difficult to follow the words of the screenings. Some audience members were also distracted by the lack of a steward pointing us to our next stop in the journey.

However, perhaps most problematic is the fragmentary nature of the event. There is no time to tune into anything before we move to a different character, a different exhibit. Without a continuous narrative backbone, many of the audience is lost.

This is a very topical initiative by Anya Ostrovskaia, whose parents were Ukrainian Jews, and her international cast that will hopefully have a future life with some of the difficulties ironed out.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna