Michael Billington Monday August 29, 2005
Russian National Mail - Old Red Lion

Ekaterinburg used to be famous as the death-place of Tsar Nicholas II and his family. Now, however, it seems to be the chief birthplace of new Russian drama. After Vassily Sigarev and the Presynakov brothers, all championed by the Royal Court, along comes Oleg Bogaev: a strange, eccentric, Gogolian talent here given his British premiere by a new group called Sputnik Theatre.

Bogaev's hero is an ex-soldier and civil servant who now lives in wretched poverty in a room piled high with yellowing papers. His sole means of relieving his frustration is letter-writing. However, since his correspondents include Lenin, Elizabeth II, Vivien Leigh and Yuri Gagarin, it soon becomes clear that he is engaged in a frantic dialogue with himself. In the wilder stretches of his imagination, his correspondents even talk to each other, so that the Bolshevik leader and the British monarch argue ferociously over the rights to his seedy apartment. The moral seems clear: life in modern Russia is conducive to madness.

Although Bogaev's play is a piece of contemporary absurdism, it also belongs to a long Russian literary tradition. If Gogol comes to mind, it is because he was both an expert on crazed solitude and an uncontrollable letter-writer: he once wrote to a hated critic, after the death of his wife: "Jesus Christ will help you become a gentleman - which you are neither by education or inclination." Despite its distinguished ancestry, Bogaev's play is admittedly incapable of much dramatic development. It also wastes some of its minor characters so that you never, as you might hope, see Trotsky dialectically engaging with Lenin.

What Bogaev's play offers is a haunting image of desolation, one that almost seems a metaphor for artistic creation: what else does a writer do but give life to absent figures through imaginary conversations? As director and translator, Noah Birksted-Breen makes a profoundly Russian play accessible to a western audience. Kevin McGonagle as the hero suggests both the sadness and the occasional ecstasy of the epistolary life, and Joseph Wicks and Leila Gray do strenuous battle as Lenin and Lizzie.

An intriguing, hour-long curiosity.