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Theatre review Riveting views from the eye of the storm

SIMON PARSONS recommends a spellbinding production of Life and Fate, set at the height of WWII in Soviet Russia

Life and Fate
Theatre Royal Haymarket, London

VASILY GROSSMAN’S magnificent epic novel Life and Fate, performed by a renowned Russian theatre company and directed by the celebrated Lev Dodin, has all the potential for a memorable production.

But expectations are also accompanied by natural doubts. How can the settings and scale of this 700-page novel, performed in Russian by Maly Drama Theatre with surtitles and lasting three-and-a-half hours, capture the power and profundity of the novel?

Premiered in Paris in 2007, Dodin devised the production with actors from the company and the depth of feeling is evident throughout the performance.

Often seen as a 20th century War and Peace, the story’s heart is the Shtrum family. At its head is the Jewish physicist Viktor, who returns to Moscow in 1943 to find an anti-semitic and nationalistic world. The extended family’s lives and loves, shredded by the warring and totalitarian worlds of Russia and Germany, provide the passion and humanity against such a cruel backdrop.

A stage diagonally bisected by a volleyball-style net, linking and dividing elements of the stories and chaotically cluttered with faded grey household items, becomes the multiple settings of a world turned upside down.

Unlike the novel, inter-related characters and plots are ever present, frozen upstage or unobserved at the centre of events as a reminder of their emotional presence. Scenes of entwined lovers, statuesquely frozen and surrounded by soldiers preparing to fight at Stalingrad, are not only profoundly moving but help link the characters.

The production juxtaposes the private and the public worlds, with intimate scenes of undressing, showering, eating and making love set against preparations for war, murder and camp brutalities. Some heartbreaking images — as when concentration camp victims, imprisoned behind the net, stand to attention as snow falls before being ordered to undress and proceed to their death by an invisible, booming voice — haunt the mind.

The cast is universally excellent, especially Tatiana Shestakova as the diminutive Jewish doctor. Her last loving letter from the concentration camp to her son Viktor Shtrum, in which she stoically reflects on her life and experiences, is interwoven throughout and becomes the keystone of a magnificent production.

That calm and solitary narrative, imbued with a sense of loss and sadness, is the eye of the storm ravaging Soviet Russia.

Runs until May 20, box office: trh.co.uk

 

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