The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Revolutions season, celebrating new Russian writing, kicks off with a particularly apt choice of play. The Drunks comes hot on the heels of President Dmitry Medvedev’s plans to ban alcohol ads and limit alcohol sales by the end of year
“Welcome to the drunks”, declare the actors raising their shot glasses to us and drinking. The Drunks tells the story of Ilya, a shell-shocked soldier, who returns home from the frontline of Chechnya to a town that declare him as a hero. Anthony Neilson’s direction of the play is fun and fast-paced: it’s two-hours (with no interval) and has a Ziggy Stardust-like announcer beating his drum and shouting each scene change from the side of the stage, a trap door in the centre, or the circle in the audience. But though the over-stylised production is stunning to look at, it highlights the lack of an engaging narrative. Instead the Durnenkov’s brothers’ writing relies on moments of black and physical comedy, for example its sauna scene complete with towel-dropping to reveal acid bright underpants on its actors. These quick laughs are frequent throughout but offer no real sense of satisfaction.
In The Grain Store we are transported to 1929 Ukraine and Stalin is just about to launch his first five year plan. We see how it destroyed a village and caused the Holodomor famine in 1933, killing up to five million people. Just before the play begins audience members are invited to eat Russian food onstage from actors in character. As we dine with them it is enjoyable and intimate, the fourth wall is broken, which emphasises their grief later to us when they are hungry. Michael Boyd, who had worked in Moscow as a director in the 1980s, creates a delicateness to this world under attack through interludes of folk music, falling snowflakes, and petals. Natalia Vorozhbit’s story, however, is static. The main interest comes from the relationship between Morkina, a wealthy peasant girl, and Arsei’s relationship, a poor boy. And Samantha Young and Tunji Kasim performances of them stand out.
Whilst The Drunks may portray to us excess and The Grain Store deficiency, the productions individually don’t seem to reach a happy medium: one being full of endless energy and the other exhausting to watch. The season also includes talks led by Bridget Kendall, Sunday brunches with live Russian music, play readings and exhibitions.
Runs till 1 October.
To see or not to see: The Drunks *** / The Grain Store **