At the beginning, there was an announcement that Rebecca Oldfield (playing the heroine Lyuba) would be on book, having taken over the role at the last minute. There were no programmes. The set looked far too clean and well-organised to be a Russian workplace, never mind a Soviet prison camp.
The play, of course, is by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and is set in a Gulag in 1945.
In theory, it follows Nemov (Nerzhin in the original), a captain newly sent to the camps and Lyuba (short for Lyubov’ = love, a perfectly normal first name for women in Russia). Nemov loses his post as production supervisor to a more cunning rival; he and Lyuba fall in love and the question is whether she can bear to enjoy the protection of the camp doctor so that Nemov will not be sent to another camp.
In fact, a large proportion of the play involved scenes from camp life and establishing the fates of the multitudinous characters, and it worked rather well in this production; clearly a lot of theatrical intelligence had been applied by director Matthew Dunster to making it all work on stage. Of course, none of it looked anything like what you can see at the Gulag Memorial in Perm, but I felt that someone had read the text carefully and made sensible decisions about how to present it on that basis.
The thing about Lyuba being on book meant that she had the text with her in the second half and referred to it with increasing frequency. In fact, in her explanation with Nemov she was trying to explain that she was not free, the constraint she was under–and there it was in her hand–I found that almost unbearably affecting.
I think the reason this play works better than you might think is that Solzhenitsyn had something to say, and knew how to say it, if not in the most polished theatrical language; and he had split himself between Nemov (captain arrested straight from the front) and Lyuba (sordid upbringing and unreasonable artistic gifts). Of course that’s what’s so Russian about the whole thing–the stupid squalor of a sixth of the earth’s surface turned over to various grades of slavery and against that the spark of the divine.
As for the actors, I thought that Rebecca Oldfield did very well and Cian Barry as Nemov actually moved and held himself like a soldier, which is a rare and welcome thing on the stage. Emily Dobbs also made a strong impression as Granya, the sniper who shoots her husband (you can more-or-less work out who was playing what part from an article here).
I should also point out that this was billed as a preview…see here for what I know about other Russian plays in London.