Three Comrades

Erich Maria Remarque, adapted for the stage by Alexander Getman
Moscow Theatre Sovremennik
Piccadilly Theatre

The Three Comrades Credit: Courtesy of Sovremennik Theatre
Chulpan Khamatova as Patrice in The Three Comrades Credit: Courtesy of Sovremennik Theatre
Alexander Khovanskiy as Robert in The Three Comrades Credit: Courtesy of Sovremennik Theatre
The Three Comrades Credit: Courtesy of Sovremennik Theatre

Moscow’s Sovremennik Theatre is back in London after a six-year hiatus, again with three ‘acclaimed’ productions, two new to London and a return of the highly-praised Three Sisters.

Since 1972 under the artistic directorship of co-founder Galina Volchek, who directs all three, the Sovremennik (the Contemporary) styles itself as ‘Russian Psychological Theatre’, continuing Stanislavsky’s method of psychological realism. An actors’ theatre, it has had a roll call of illustrious directors and actors, but the vision now is entirely hers.

Choosing to open with an adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s written in exile novel Drei Kameraden—first published in 1936, but not in Germany till 1951—Volchek slowly spreads her sentimental cards on the table. Hollywood made its version in 1938 with the three comrades, Robert, Otto and Gottfried, played by Robert Taylor, Franchot Stone and Robert Young.

Remarque’s most famous work, All Quiet on the Western Front (also made into a film in 1930), dealt with life as he knew it in the trenches during WWI; Three Comrades observes a passionate, life-affirming love story set against the post-war-years’ depressive political landscape in Weimar Germany and the gradual rise of the Nazis.

Three hard-drinking ex-soldiers, now car mechanics and drivers, look out for each other’s backs as they scramble a living. Everyone is scrambling a living: the ageing prostitutes, the housekeeper of their lodging house, its impoverished inmates, the hawkers on the street. Could be The Lower Depths, if not for Pavel Parkhomenko’s marvellous George Grosz and Otto Dix inspired designs or the black leather-coated men multiplying on the streets.

It is his visually striking cityscape set (like a Hollywood film noir sound stage with lots of extras), Pavel Kaplevich’s costume design, and wonderfully evocative music and soundscape, that save the evening for me. Walkways, bridges, a ruined church and cemetery, low dives, bars, Marlene Dietrich (with whom womanising Remarque was said to have had an affair)—this is the Berlin of Christopher Isherwood, too, but without his outsider’s sharp wit.

There’s much drowning of sorrows with liquor until Robert meets the love of his life, the glamorous, above his station Patrice Hollmann in her fashionable clothes. Against the odds they fall in love, but there is always the snake in the pit. She has TB.

Their holiday by the beach is ruined by a haemorrhage. Earthly love has enriched Robert beyond his dreams. His comrades sell their beloved car ‘Karl’, their only livelihood, to send her to a sanatorium—to no avail. Eternal love remains.

On top of that Gottfried is shot dead by a Nazi. In apotheotic final tableau, the beautiful car containing all four of them rises to the heavens. Oscar Wilde’s quote on Dickens comes to mind.

My companion can barely contain himself after this drawn-out, three-hour-long weepie. Hollywood, at least, kept the film to 98 minutes, and one of its adapters was F Scott Fitzgerald. Margaret Sullavan as Patrice was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress.

The elegant young Russian ‘celebrity’ with immaculate English on my left likes the acting, but rails against Daria Ignatyeva’s surtitles, which she thinks inadequate. Splitting hairs, she hates ‘crayfish’ translated as ‘crab’, for example, but I wonder about ‘pederasts’ translated as ‘sissies’. She and I watch two girls in the box to our right struggling with the computer, which crashes three times.

Synchronicity isn't great either and my partner is frustrated by these breaks in narrative information in this most wordy of plays, adapted by Alexander Getman from Isaak Schreiber’s Russian translation of the equally epic book (480 or so pages).

I do not mind the surtitle failures—the fewer corny words the better—as the predictable storyline is flagged up with great physicality. The acting is fine, especially from Chulpan Khamatova as Patrice and Alexander Khovanskiy as Robert.

Indeed, the large ensemble, some 34 actors and three children, are choreographed well, but the treacly, ponderous pace takes some accommodation and the apposite message that love and solidarity conquer all is treated with a declamatory touch.

Reviewer: Vera Liber