Friday, March 25, 2011

Remembrance Day at the Royal Court

The 16th March marks Latvian Legion Day, a day of commemoration for the surviving veterans who fought against the Soviets on the side of the Nazis. It is a day of remembrance but also a day of protest and anger in which the country’s entrenched social divisions are brought sharply into focus. The march has become a touch-paper for a younger generation, both for young nationalist groups and for predominantly Russian anti-fascist groups.

Aleksey Scherbak’s new play, staged as part of the Royal Court’s International Playwrights Season in a translation by Rory Mullarky, is set on the eve of the march. Anya, the teenage daughter of a Russian family, is getting ready to protest; her rage is blue-flamed and youthful, her view of the world binary. Her father doesn’t condone her anger yet he is sympathetic and even helps her paint an anti-fascist banner; however the more he speaks of forgiveness and leaving the past in the past, the more he seems to upset and anger both her and other Russians who feel as she does.

Scherbak’s play is set in a run-down block of flats in Riga where Russians and Latvians live next door to one another, though this proximity does not equate to neighbourliness. If anything the divisions run deeper than they once did (Latvian Legion Day was only instituted in the 1990s when the country gained its independence); Anya’s elderly Uncle Misha, a Russian army veteran, used to play chess with his Latvian neighbour Valdis, but those days are long gone. To speak of forgiveness, as Anya’s father does, is on a par with declaring oneself a Nazi sympathiser.

In the adjacent flat, the two veterans, Valdis and his friend Paulis, knock back the vodka in remembrance of the fallen and discuss how their fight has become a symbol of Latvian independence and pride. Paulis is full of unrepentant bluster but Valdis is more contemplative, fully aware that things were not so clear cut during the war years.

Tom Scutt’s stark set, its walls and floor painted red and white, striped like the Latvian flag, is agreeably flexible, acting as both the connecting corridor and the interior of the various flats. A pile of rather functional furniture sits at one side of the stage and is pulled into use when needed and left in place so that director Michael Longhurst is able to interweave the scenes and show the neighbours - literally - living on top of one another, sharing the same sofa, eating at the same table.

Scherbak seems to be writing with a broader audience in mind – there’s a lot of contextualising and explanation – but his play paints a fascinating picture of a divided country and the harnessing of the past for political ends, which while very specific to Latvia, contains ripples that run throughout Europe and beyond. Character takes something of a backseat in this process and Anya’s journey towards radicalism, tangled as it is with sexual desire and adolescent romanticism – she speaks dreamily about the purity and beauty of martyrdom, of being willing to die for one’s beliefs – feels rather heavy-handed at times. Ruby Bentall, as Anya, manages to combine teenage petulance with something colder and more disturbing while Iwan Rheon, as her brother Lyosha, is the voice of optimism and internationalism; he pronounces himself a citizen of the world and thinks the whole situation has little relevance for his generation.

Michael Nardone gives the play a solid centre as Anya’s determinedly reasonable father, a man unwilling to dilute his principles. Sam Kelly and Ewan Hooper, as the ageing veterans, add a necessary textural layer as well as some humour - which sits uneasily with the sight of their SS jackets. Luke Norris is fittingly slick and cynical as Boris, the young man using both the veterans and Anya’s passion as a way of furthering his political career (there’s a nice, if a little too wry, moment where Boris meets his fascist counterpart in the corridor and greets him like a colleague, asking after his family before briefly discussing printing costs like any two co-workers).

Scherbak’s play, like Anya’s father, seems keen to draw a line under the past, while demonstrating that looking forward is not the same thing as forgetting or even forgiving. But it does this at the expense of fully engaging with what drives young people towards extremism and sacrifices a certain dramatic richness along the way too, yet for all it lacks, it remains a fascinating portrait of a country split by its past.

Reviewed for Exeunt

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