Southwark Playhouse, London (****)
Well, here’s a thing now, a season of plays up from Plymouth – but no ordinary season when steered by Simon Stokes and Jenny Topper.
It was Stokes and Topper who put the small-fringe-theatre-above-a-pub in Shepherds Bush, the Bush Theatre, on the map back in the day. When they left, Topper went off to become an independent producer. Meanwhile Stokes took himself off to Devon to start a completely new trip by the sea. The Bush was – and still is under Madani Younis – all about new writing. And so Stokes has continued, in like fashion, in Plymouth.
A history of what has transpired since he set up camp 20 years ago shows a remarkable record of both risk-taking and success with writers who have now become major luminaries of today’s British theatre: Abi Morgan, Mike Bartlett, Jack Thorne and possibly the most prolific and enjoyable observer of our current political turmoils, James Graham.
Stokes – with Topper as Consultant Producer – has now come temporarily to rest in south London, yes, the place Trump has sworn (thank goodness) to never set foot in.
Trump’s loss is our gain. And although I haven’t yet seen the first part of the brace of plays running in repertoire to Feb 10, the second one by Russian writing star, Mikhai Durnenkov – The war has not yet started – is quirky and unsettling enough to raise the appetite for its companion piece going under the even more teasing title of The Here and This and Now.
Durnenkov presents us with a quasi daisy-chain of episodes lasting no more than a few minutes. Seemingly unconnected, and set in a nondescript sitting room – everyone and everybody’s sitting room in other words – taken together the fragments paint a disconcerting picture of modern life under attack, from isolationism, obsession – `being in the zone’ – to the final scene of a wife planning a husband’s murder.
This latter, possibly the most dramatic of the twelve scenarios, is an almost identical riff on Pinter’s The Lover – the story of a couple whose love-making is predicated on make-believe, the husband taking the form of a lover to add spice to their love-life. Durnenkov’s treatment however, as with all his stories, carries not only a twist but mirrors today’s domestic and sexual abuse with an extra layer of aggressive menace.
Mark Quartly conveys the husband’s abuse with chilling cool whilst Hannah Britland’s face charts her character’s move from concern to fear to ultimately a kind of victory.
In a cast of three, Quartly, Britland, joined by Sarah Hadland perform miracles of transformation, swopping genders as well as characters.
There is a telling duo for Britland and Hadland with Britland as a husband accusing Hadland of making a pass at his wife in a swimming pool – a fascinating, rather frightening depiction of possessiveness and sexual fantasies being projected onto others.
Then there is the story of a fake news event – the murder of a little boy – that has been broadcast, the female journalist tells her husband all too `rationally’, because `it could have happened.’
Fear of the other, the foreign, the war just beyond the border, moral and political uncertainties and ambiguities stalk these tales.
Even if we can relate to them, here, in the west, in London, they also carry an unmistakeable scent of east European/Russian’s absurdism and surreality – of a world of random moments threaded with threat, anxiety, anger and even in the mouth of a pensioner father, destructive hatred.
Gordon Anderson, former AD of Actors Touring Company but latterly tv director and co-founder of the League of Gentlemen comedy group as well as director of the mega-hits Shameless and the Catherine Tate Show, directs with a clear sense of ironical relish, interlacing each scene with an eclectic bag of musical hints.
It makes for a diverting if sometimes puzzling 75 minutes since a linking theme really only becomes apparent in the slow after-consideration of what has gone before.
Stokes has called The war has not yet started as `prescient’. Indeed, an early reading of the play was two years ago. As time goes on, I suspect Durnenkov’s little snippets will come to seem even more prophetic.
Well worth catching now along with Glenn Waldron’s The Here and This and Now.
To Feb 10.
The war has not yet started
By Mikhail Durnenkov
Translated by Noah Birksted-Breen
Director: Gordon Anderson
Designer: Bob Bailey
Lighting Designer: Andy Purves
Sound Designer: Ed Lewis
Assistant Director: Kay Michael
Casting Director: Stephen Moore CDG
Consultant Producer: Jenny Topper
Presented by Theatre Royal Plymouth
First perf of this production of The war has not yet started, at Southwark Playhouse, Jan 17, 2018.
Runs in repertoire with The Here and This and Now to Feb 10, 2018
Review published on this website, January 21, 2018