700 pages of a dense, Russian, 1960s novel into a live theatrical production? Tom Preston examines how well Vasily Grossman translates onto the stage - Life And Fate:

The Maly Drama Theatre of St Petersburg bring this adaptation of Vasily Grossman’s 1960 novel Life And Fate to London, a sprawling and sombre portrayal of lives under the oppressive boot of the Soviet Union in 1943. Directed and adapted by Artistic Director Lev Dodin, the story centres on Victor Shtrum (Sergey Kuryshev) and his family, who have just returned to Moscow after evacuation. Shtrum has grown disillusioned with Stalinist Russia; as a nuclear physicist he is a critical and objective man, drawing comparisons between communism and fascism as war rages on the Eastern Front. These are dangerous discussions to have given the persecution of the scientific community during Stalin’s reign, while Shtrum’s Jewish heritage is something he is forced to come to terms with in light of his mother’s murder in a concentration camp.

Life And Fate Theatre Royal Haymarket

Elena Solomonova, Sergey Kuryshev & Daria Rumyantseva (image courtesy of Maly Theatre)

Shtrum’s moral dilemma is the knotty conflict central to the play. At first critical of Stalin’s regime, he doesn’t object when the Soviet leader approves his work. We understand his reasoning because it will guarantee his family’s safety, but it still leaves the scientist with a plagued conscience. Yet more troubling still, in order to continue his work he is faced with the decision of signing a letter denouncing Soviet dissidents. These themes of confused identity and strained loyalties are echoed in a Nazi concentration camp, where prisoners contemplate communism and fascism as one and the same – only the suffering of the oppressed is universal. Suffering is buried within the sub-plot too, where Shtrum’s sister-in-law Zhenya (Elizaveta Boyarskaya) faces a moral dilemma – she continues an affair with Soviet officer Novikov (Sergey Vlasov) while her husband is held a political captive in a Soviet labour camp.

Life And Fate Theatre Royal Haymarket

Elizaveta Boyarskaya (image courtesy of Maly Theatre)

It’s an impressive achievement to distil the 700-page novel of Life And Fate into a play, but Dodin’s vision remains too ambitious. A more emotionally engaging story can be wrought by the Shtrum’s family story, having removed the scenes set in prison camps, while Zhenya’s love affair narrative can be effectively delivered by the actress herself. True, the scenes do transition and overlap smoothly, but with so many bodies on stage to keep track of, our attention tends to waver.

Life And Fate Theatre Royal Haymarket

Image courtesy of Maly Theatre

Aleksy Porai-Koshitc‘s set is clear in its symbolism. Above dusty furniture hangs a wired fence. At first it functions as a volleyball net, then later as a prison fence for incarcerated characters to appear behind. But its constant presence is a reminder of the social divisions gripping Russia at the time. Yet problems with the English surtitles become increasingly difficult to ignore, as translated dialogue lingers for too long, or the punch line to a joke appears far too late after the moment on stage has passed. At one point, Zhenya and Victor’s wife Lyuda (Elena Solomonova) move upstage to discuss a matter in secret, their lines delivered to us via speakers. The change is so sudden and obvious that it’s off putting.

Life And Fate Theatre Royal Haymarket

Image courtesy of Maly Theatre

Despite the impressive ensemble on stage, the expansive auditorium is never energised. No tension or excitement is derived from talk of Stalingrad or the war at large. In the face of tyranny, Life And Fate’s message of human resilience is delivered lukewarmly. I have high expectations given the subject matter, dense source material and the company presenting the show, but after a long three hours and twenty minutes I’m left, ironically, wanting more.

 

 

★★☆☆☆

Life And Fate runs at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until 20 May 2018. For further information, please visit the venue website.