The Times August 31, 2005

Russian National Mail at the Old Red lion, EC1
Sam Marlowe

IN Travesties, Tom Stoppard brings together Lenin, James Joyce and the Dadaist Tristan Tzara to debate political history. For this hour-long absurdist drama, the Urals writer Oleg Bogaev performs a comparable trick.

In the squalid flat he shared with his postal-worker wife until her death, Ivan, a pensioner stricken by poverty and isolation, writes a stream of letters. Some are to old friends who have long ago forgotten him; but most are to people he has never met: Queen Elizabeth II, Vivien Leigh, Lenin, Trotsky, Gagarin, even some amiable Martians. His scrawled epistles never make it out of his paper-strewn home — and yet, mysteriously, replies materialise, tucked in his dressing gown pocket or poking out of a drawer. And when he sleeps, his correspondents themselves appear, gathering around his rumpled bed — not out of concern for Ivan’s welfare, but to squabble over which of them gets to keep his apartment when he dies.

Bogaev shares a mentor with the playwrights Vassily Sigarev and the Presnyakov brothers, and if Russian National Mail is less successful than their output, it shares their bleak, blackly humorous view of post-Soviet life. Ivan is filled with impotent fury at the pitifully inadequate pension on which he, a war veteran, is expected to live; and a scene in which Elizabeth II and Lenin argue over him, the former denigrating him as “a potato in a suit ” and the latter claiming him as a casualty of capitalism, underlines the way in which individuals are pawns in the game of politics. The scramble for ownership of Ivan’s meagre possessions is a grim irony and a grotesque insult to a comrade whose suffering was a brick in the building of the now- crumbled Communist state.

But while Noah Birksted-Breen’s Sputnik Theatre production bubbles with ideas, it, and the play, remain under- developed. A puppetry sequence in which Ivan’s dying wife is portrayed by a fragile figure made of brown paper with wooden-spoon arms, has a delicacy that is rarely evident elsewhere. The motif of letter-writing is repetitive and dramatically rather unexciting, and most of the famous figures might as well be cardboard cut-outs for the use Bogaev makes of them.

Birksted-Breen’s translation nicely balances bitterness and wit, and Kevin McMonagle is an appealing and affecting Ivan. But on this evidence, Bogaev’s best work is still some way ahead of him.