Tag Archives: Russia

201: Breaking the Silence

12 Apr

Stephen Poliakoff’s Breaking the Silence was inspired by his grandfather, “a figure immaculately dressed for the opera, who did for a time have his own train, chugging through Lenin’s Russia’.

teapot and book

The play is a wonderful, warm and vivid account of lives disrupted by revolution, lived in the carriage of a train while the world outside changes radically. Poliakoff based it on family history, as told to him by his father, and re-imagined things by setting the whole play in the one train carriage. You can read his account of the merging of fact and fiction here.

Breaking the Silence spans the four years when Nikolai, his wife Eugenia, son Sasha and maid Polya live together in an Imperial style railway carriage, hurtling through a changing country, trapped in an anachronism of the past. The family is Jewish and wealthy. It is 1920 and they are saved from starvation when a Party official meets Nikolai and makes him the Telephone Examiner of the Northern District.

The problem is that Nikolai doesn’t have the slightest intention of doing his new job. He is an inventor and an aristocrat and that is how he intends living his life. The invention on which he is working is one which will break the silence and create sound for motion pictures. In a bullet-ridden luxury rail carriage he obsesses over his invention while Eugenia and Polya try to cover for him so that the authorities won’t discover his laziness.

Everyone in the play changes except for Nikolai, who stays majestic and incorrigible at its heart. Eugenia becomes herself, a strong and vibrant woman after a lifetime of doing what she’s told and fearing her husband’s temper.

EUGENIA: He’s always found the idea of me working extremely unpleasant. He told me once he found the thought repulsive. And I seem to be forbidden more than ever before to touch any of his work, even to glance at it. Sometimes, Polya, I have an intense desire to go through everything of his.

Polya learns to read and gets a job that isn’t just tending to her employers’ needs and Sasha grows ashamed of his father and desperate to fit into the new Russia.

SASHA: When I have to go for a walk with Father – I keep well behind him. He looks so ridiculous, strolling along, in that great coat, with a cane, in the shunting yards, among all this rolling stock here, freight being unloaded, and there he is saying good morning to everyone with a wave, like he’s greeting farm labourers on his estate.

At the end of the play, forced to flee their country, the family finally realises what it’s leaving behind.

NIKOLAI: Nothing I have ever read or been told in my life has prepared me for this shock, the sheer physical sensation when one is faced with leaving one’s native land permanently – like you are being pulled away from a magnetic field and that everything will then stop. It will have been severed.

Breaking the Silence is a beautiful re-imagining of family history and a compelling drama.

Publisher: Methuen Drama

Cast: 5M, 2F

172: Voyage

10 Oct

A big thank you to Chris Mead at PlayWriting Australia for recommending I read this one. Tom Stoppard’s Voyage is the first part of his The Coast of Utopia trilogy.

Michael Bakunin as a young man

Michael Bakunin as a young man

It’s a biographical suite of plays focusing on three Russian philosophers/writers/activists in the heady days before the Russian revolution. As a trilogy the plays cover the 1830s to the 1870s, with Voyage, the first one, focusing on 1833-1844 and Michael Bakunin, the man who would become one of Russia’s most famous anarchists.

When Stoppard introduces Bakunin to us, he is a dissolute aristocrat, meddling in his sisters’ lives, borrowing money from even the most impoverished of his friends, expecting to be provided for without ever having to lift a finger. The play focuses more on his sisters than it does on him and, in many ways, it reminded me of Chekhov and the longing of his Three Sisters. I say this because there’s a lot of talking about things, rather than seeing them happen on stage. I don’t mind this in a play about philosophy, politics and Russia – it seems quite fitting in many ways.

A gorgeous example of the philosophical debate is made when one of Bakunin’s friends, Belinsky, gets heated up and alienates Bakunin’s aristocratic family.

BELINSKY: […] as a nation we have no literature because what we have isn’t ours, it’s like a party where everyone has to come dressed up as somebody else – Byron, Voltaire, Goethe, Schiller, Shakespeare and the rest […] Look at us! – A gigantic child with a tiny head stuffed full of idolatry for everything foreign … and a huge inert body abandoned to its own muck, a continent of vassalage and superstition – that’s your Russia, held together by police informers and fourteen ranks of uniformed flunkeys.

I was fascinated by Bakunin’s sisters, who were prepared to give up marriages, love and dreams at their impetuous brother’s behest. They clearly adored him and the love seemed to perhaps be a bit more than familial at times.

Voyage jumps about in time and place, with the action looping backwards and forwards in time to fill in the gaps of our knowledge and maintain tension. The non-linear story telling is perhaps the most dramatic element of this thoroughly researched and imaginatively recreated play.

I’ll leave the last word with Belinsky who appears to be the only real philosopher in this play.

BELINKSY: […] When philosophers start talking like architects, get out while you can, chaos is coming. When they start laying down rules for beauty, blood in the streets is from that moment inevitable.

Publisher: Faber and Faber

Cast: 16M, 10F

124: Svetlana in Slingbacks

23 Jul

Valentina Levkowicz’s funny and tragic play is a pastiche of 1960s suburban Australia, Russian refugees, eccentricity, madness and aliens.

Svetlana in Slingbacks

Svetlana in Slingbacks tells the tale of a migrant family living in Adelaide in the 1960s. Boris fled Stalin’s armies in 1942 and headed for Australia, marrying single-parent Ludmilla on the way. Ludmilla’s daughter Sonya is now a gorgeous and somewhat radical uni student and her half-sister is Svetlana, a chubby 12 year old with an active imagination.

The play opens with Ludmilla recently back from hospital. She has a mental illness and believes the KGB is trying to send messages into her brain.

LUDA: But if I count to ten over and over it blocks them out. They cannot get through. Cannot contaminate. They lose their powers.

Svetlana doesn’t want her mother home: she’s an embarrassment, what with her bloodstained nightie, taking the wrong pills and saying the wrong things at the wrong time, not to mention making Svetlana the smelliest lunches to take to school and putting her cordial in a detergent bottle.

RAY: Pwoah! Struth! How do you eat that stuff?! What’s in there?! Smells like dead rabbit.

SVETA: It’s a rissole sandwich. My mum made it for me.

RAY: Why doesn’t your mum make normal things, eh? Eh? Can you hear me? Why doesn’t your mum make normal sandwiches?

The doctors have advised Boris that the next step is a lobotomy and, tragically, this ends up being Ludmilla’s fate. Boris works long hours and when he’s around his family he tends to be overly strict and dictatorial. Svetlana is made to spend hours on her knees in the toilet for a misdemeanour and Sonya is boiling over with rebellion.

The play is seen mostly through Svetlana’s eyes: so there’s a childlike naivety to a lot of the goings on and a few visits from the aliens she is sure will come to save her. The mix of magic, make believe and harsh reality makes for a whimsical and delightful experience. I wasn’t sure about the rhyming verse that opens and closes the play, but imagine it could be made to work in production without seeming too twee.

LUDA: An old black dog that barked and bit,
Lived inside my brain.
She loved the stones I threw her,
The tender bites of pain.

My doctor said,
‘Let’s put her down,
There is no hope, no cure’.
Now all is strangely silent,
She does not live here anymore.

Publisher: Currency Press (published alongside Post Felicity by Ben Ellis)

Cast: 3M, 3F