Vasily Grossman’s 855-page account of life across the Soviet Union during World War II has been compared to Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Adaptor/director Lev Dodin and his Maly Drama Theatre company from St Petersburg have honed it into three hours of gripping theatre, by turns shocking, moving and funny – sometimes all three simultaneously. They have wisely concentrated on the story of the family of Viktor Shtrum, the Jewish physicist at the heart of Grossman’s novel, while ensuring that other key characters get the stage time they deserve. The predicament of the Jews that underpins the novel is placed firmly centre stage.
A chapter devoted to a letter of farewell Shtrum’s mother Anna writes to her son from her last confinement in the Berdichev ghetto in Ukraine provides the way in and an emotional structure to which the action returns at intervals. Dodin divides her account into the stages of the Jews’ degradation and suffering, forbidden the streets and shops, losing possessions, losing their homes, and finally marched to the ghetto. Anna’s continued discovery of love, even in extremis, her calm acceptance of her imminent fate as a victim of mass shooting, is all unbearably moving, especially in Tatiana Shestakova’s luminous account. She delivers it all with a smile that is indeed ‘the embodiment of love’, as Dodin put it in our conversation for Jewish Renaissance.
Dodin and designer Alexey Poray-Koshits work seamlessly together to create a set at once demonstrably practical, ‘a machine for acting’ (a term coined by Russian Jewish theatre visionary, Meyerhold, a contemporary of Grossman’s) and highly symbolic. It is divided by a volleyball net (the cast play to open the show), which provides a useful barrier evoking barbed wire, behind which cast members clad in familiar striped pyjama-like suits line up to re-enact the grimness of roll call. Whether they are confined in concentration camps or Soviet gulags, it’s all chillingly similar. Guards force prisoners to march and sing – at a stunning, shocking climax, to march as a brass band, only to cast aside both instruments and clothing
The action begins with the urgent bustle of the Shtrum family’s return to war-torn Moscow from a mass exile of scientists (Einstein’s theories ‘stink of Judaism’ according to Stalin’s Marxist Leninist ideology, says Grossman). The family whip away sheets of newspaper (ironically Pravda, ‘truth’) protecting dusty furniture, so that audience senses becomes acutely aware of these and other sound effects created by the company.
The drama swirls around the family’s complex web of relationships, cutting between scenes of intimacy and domesticity and scenes of dialectical discussion, between Grossman’s vivid portrayals of life in gulags and camps, at the front, at the siege of Stalingrad and the scientific research institute where Shtrum works. Scenes dissolve into one another or even exist side by side, thanks to lighting designer Gleb Foishtinskiy.
In Moscow, Viktor’s wife Lyudmila (Elena Solomonova) has lost her beloved son Tolya by her previous marriage to Abarchuk (Vladimir Seleznez), an ardent supporter of Stalinism despite wrongful confinement in a gulag. Her sister, Zhenya (Elizaveta Boyarskaya) is in love with the ardent heroic humanist Colonel Novikov (splendid Sergey Vlasov),a commander resisting the Nazis at Stalingrad, who is not afraid to defy Stalin by delaying a vital offensive for several minutes to save soldiers’ lives. She leaves him though, to support her former husband Krymov (Alexey Zubarev), when she hears he is imprisoned in Moscow’s notorious Lubyanka. Daria Rumyantseva plays Nadia the Shtrum’s daughter as the embodiment of feisty teenage rebellion and the freshness of young love. There’s a glow about all these strong, passionate women. Solomonova and Boyarskaya are both extraordinary, revealing the steel beneath their apparent delicacy and vulnerability.
Sergey Kuryshev’s tousled, gangling, haunted Viktor, is a wonder to watch, his hopes, fears, and dilemmas transparent in his shifting expressions, body language. His rueful self-identification as a Jew is both painful and funny. As a scientist threatened with disgrace, he’s at once fearful and courageous, staunchly declaring ‘the logic of maths is more powerful than that of Lenin’. At a pivotal moment, he is reprieved by a phone call from Stalin himself, briefed that this physicist’s research could enable Russia to rival America’s nuclear weapons development. His response, repeating Stalin’s words ‘I wish you success in your work’, is at first tentative then full-throated as the family picks up the refrain and he picks up his wife and takes her to bed, both stripping for triumphal love-making to the repeated refrain. It’s a comic high spot in an evening that is often dark and painful.
Indeed, Novikov and Zhenya’s sensuous love-making on that centre-stage bed, is contrasted with stark accounts of camp life from prisoners surrounding them. Grossman, a journalist who reported on Stalingrad’s siege and witnessed the liberation of Treblinka, found his work outlawed because he dared to equate the totalitarianism of Communism with Nazism. In his story, they are embodied in telling dialogue between veteran communist prisoner Mostovskoy (Igor Ivanov) and his interrogator, Gestapo officer Liss (Oleg Dmitriev), steel against steel in perfectly-matched performances. Grossman’s transcendent message is that love and acts of kindness will triumph. It is triumphantly delivered by this magnificent company.
By Judi Herman
Photos © Maly Drama Theatre
Life and Fate runs until Sunday 20 May. 7pm, 2.30pm (20 May only). £15-£200. Theatre Royal Haymarket, SW1Y 4HT. 020 7930 8800. www.trh.co.uk
Read our interview with Lev Dodin in the April 2018 issue of Jewish Renaissance or on the JR website.