thu 23/05/2019

Into the Whirlwind, Sovremennik, Noël Coward Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Into the Whirlwind, Sovremennik, Noël Coward Theatre

Into the Whirlwind, Sovremennik, Noël Coward Theatre

Strong Russian ensemble work in this drama of Stalin's purges

Siberia beckons for the women of 1937 in Sovremennik's production of 'Into the Whirlwind'

Tradition has often bedded down very comfortably in the Russian performing arts, which ought to be an asset in the current vortex but brings mixed blessings. Detailed ensemble work, the Moscow Sovremennik Theatre's strongest asset, takes time to develop, yet actors with roles for life may be slow to yield to fresh blood. So does theatre legend Galina Volchek's 21-year-old production of a tough literary adaptation about women learning the "new language" of the terrible year 1937 on the way to Siberia merit a standing ovation? If you're a Russian with a long memory, yes; but taking the performance on its own merits, I'm less sure.

Certainly the continuity of the Sovremennik ("Contemporaryite") company's history is daunting. You can read more about it in Tom Birchenough's lucid introduction on theartsdesk, so I won't repeat much of what he says here except to note that Volchek started out as a Moscow Arts Theatre-trained graduate, class of 1956, when the authorities first repudiated the three-years-dead Stalin; after many censorial vicissitudes, she unveiled this eminently theatrical adaptation of gulag survivor and history professor Yevgenia Ginzburg's Into the Whirlwind in the equally memorable milestone of 1989. But yesterday's radicals can become today's monument. You can see why this production moved the likes of Bill Clinton, Arthur Miller and Jane Fonda on its American tour, and I wish Sovremennik had made it to these shores earlier than it now has, courtesy of ever so slightly improbable support from Roman Abramovich.

SovremennikIntotheWhirlwind_828What are the drawbacks, if one dare mention them in such a sacred rite? Well, much-respected actress Marina Neelova may be a fine institution, but she's nearly twice the age good Communist Ginzburg was when she found herself thrown into prison on trumped-up charges of counter-revolutionary activity in 1937. It matters, because we're several times told how youthful is our heroine, and how she has three young children to think about (her emotion over their being deprived of their mother is crucial).

Neelova doesn't entirely convince in her breakdowns but is good at the dignity of staying honest at all costs. This is one of the core themes of the book and the play, as indeed it is of the deservedly popular novel of the moment, Hans Fallada's Alone in Berlin (not entirely irrelevant: the great writer who stayed on under Nazism and only just outlived it took his nom de plume from an ETA Hoffmann story, and Hoffmannesque fantasy is invoked by one of the women prisoners during Into the Whirlwind's second-act uproar following a German actress's narrative). The one moment where a lump truly came to my throat was the way Neelov characterised Ginzburg's brutalisation at the hands of a former student (Vladislav Vetrov, chillingly casual in his violence, pictured with Neelova above right).

Unfortunately, it seems that the Sovremennik company's home base is an easier space in which to project the favoured naturalistic delivery - not to be confused with the "theatre mumbling" excoriated here last week bv Carole Woddis, though Stanislavsky may be a common link - than the not-very-amenable Noël Coward Theatre; much of the dialogue was lost to where I was sitting beneath the balcony overhang. That meant that the pathos of several tragic narratives, especially the one from Ginzburg's cellmate Milda (Marina Khazova), don't reach to the back of the stalls. There are several stronger-voiced cameos, though the one from another much-loved Russian actress - Liya Akedzhakova - didn't seem to me to merit the applause on her entrance, even if I could see why the lines of a peasant woman outraged at being accused of "intellectual" crimes merited more clapping from the many Russians in the audience.

By then, the message that half the women still have faith in their Beloved Leader and Teacher Stalin, who would never permit such institutionalised brutality if he got to hear about it, comes across loud and clear. And some of us eventually got used to the admirably operated but incredibly speedy rolling surtitles to the sides of the stage; I found my faltering Russian very much needed them, given the naturalistic rapidity of delivery, though I could understand every word delivered by the schoolmistress from Kazan.

SovremennikIntotheWhirlwind_827Very much the peak of the company's achievement, in fact, is the realistic interplay of the women prisoners in the broader canvas of the second act, from the clinking and scraping of tin mugs - earlier, we're given a vivid demonstration of the coded tapping on cell walls - to the totally convincing flow of emotions from humour and euphoria to despair and anger. At the centre of this is the pacy scene in which Olga Drozdova's Karolla narrates her dancer's love story, simultaneously translated from the German by Neelova's now quietly authoritative Ginzburg (Karolla dances for the women, pictured above left).

Given such loving ensemble work, it's easy not to worry about where the narrative might be leading. Even so, I wonder whether there's less edge than there used to be to the final coup, with the women, having held on to their Soviet principles and marched to what they think will be a joyful labour in the east, freezing in a famous final tableau of despair. Mikhail Frenkel's oppressive low-ceilinged designs for the prison rooms work well; less so the sound-score, which sounds like something created by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in the 1960s. I left admiring the preservation of a classic but not, in spite of the eloquently argued subject matter, deeply moved. So let's see whether the company can give us the famed Russian comic side of Chekhov next week.

Very much the peak of the company's achievement was the realistic interplay of the women prisoners in the broader canvas of the second act

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Comments

...it is Karolla, not Greta (Marina Alexandrova/ Olga Drozdova) who is telling her story and dancing for the women... I beg to differ. The play is not "a monument" but a warning for all normal people with common sense. There is enough monstrosity taking place in the world today... Furthemore, I do not think M. Neelova's age matters much, it is not a ballet ! I can speak only for myself and I completely believed Evgenia pictured by the actress without trying to do sums and calculate her age. They say the english actors play with their heads and the russian ones with their hearts. If you made an effort to understand why such tyranny was allowed to happen and felt the pain of these poor russian souls then you probably did not waste your time and money. Russian without "long memory" whatsoever

I didn't find the age of the actress a problem because I couldn't see her for most of the time. Even though my seat was full-price non-restricted view, all the interrogation scenes were so far downstage that they were impossible to see. From the straining all around the grand circle, I guess no one up there saw much. I am at a loss as to why a bit of simple restaging wasn't done. Forty pounds to stare at some surtitles is pretty outrageous.

Thank you, Matreshka, the large cast and the lack of a sentence or two in the programme telling us who was who after the names led me awry. Often it was a process of deduction. I'll change that now.. Believe me, I've spent many years making 'an effort to understand' what happened and why, though obviously I'll never be as close to it as these actors were. I understand fully the motivation and the eloquence of Ginzburg's writing. But the only proof of any statement about these happenings on the stage is in the depth of the delivery, and that didn't always work for me. As for age only mattering in a ballet, no-one wants to see a 60 year old Tatyana in Onegin, or ditto for Natasha in War and Peace (Vishnevskaya's last recording of Prokofiev's opera extremely ill advised), do they? Besides, I do think a truly great performance makes you forget all those considerations - and Ms Neelova, fine though she was, didn't make me do that.

Matreshka: "They say the english actors play with their heads and the russian ones with their hearts". That is the kind of thoughtless generalisation which gets us nowhere. Some of the actors in this production were truthful, others were not - probably about the same proportion you'd get in a high-quality National Theatre production.

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