Vrag: Stalin's New Truth

Ivantiy Novak
Riverside Studios

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Rodnoi (Ivantiy Novak) and the visitor (Mohit Mathur) Credit: Luca Vannucci
The visitor (Mohit Mathur) and Rodnoi (Ivantiy Novak) Credit: Luca Vannucci
The visitor (Mohit Mathur) Credit: Luca Vannucci

There is a dreamlike quality to Ivantiy Novak’s short play Vrag: Stalin's New Truth. The poet Rodnoi Ivanovich Stetsenko walks to the front of his room (the stage) overlooking the grand Nevsky Prospect in Petrograd / Leningrad. He is carrying what looks like a letter and is speaking to “dear nobody” about his promotion to chief speech-writer for the leader of Russia.

Shortly afterwards, a sinister, unnamed man appears before him. The stranger (Mohit Mathur) doesn’t identify himself or show any proof of his authority, but has a task for Rodnoi (Ivantiy Novak). He is to write a speech denouncing the latest targets of a purge. The trouble is, the latest targets include his friend Sasha, whom he can't believe is anything but loyal. His objections to the inclusion of Sasha soon develop into arguments about the truth of what he writes and his sense that he is being expected to contribute to an injustice against a friend.

His visitor will have none of that. Truth is what they say it is. He insists the father, their leader, decides what is true. The unpleasant messenger of the State initially brushes aside Rodnoi’s objections as he sits at the table playing a card game of patience and drinking wine, but he becomes increasingly menacing, threatening to strangle the girl living next door and have Rodnoi’s mother killed.

It is a glimpse of the murderous, paranoid Russian regime of Joseph Stalin that destroyed anyone who got in its way.

However, there is a lack of depth to the characters and this makes it hard to empathise with Rodnoi or to understand the stranger's motivation. The dreamlike, two-dimensional quality of the pair along with the swift, slightly unbelievable shift of Rodnoi’s status from chief speech-writer to the abused victim has the usual problem of making monstrous regimes seem unreal and remote. All the same, in these politically turbulent times, it is important we are reminded of this terrible history.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna