Stalingrad, 1942. A city under siege, so starved that household pets and dead bodies will do for food. In a small flat, 16 year-old Lika looks up with every shell that bursts nearby, shaking dust down from the ceiling. She is rigid with cold; arthritic before her time. All the furniture has gone – burned for an hour’s extra warmth – except for one chewed mattress.
With her is Marat – a year older, a soldier, the flat’s owner – and, huddled so tight together on the mattress that they seem to be climbing into one another, they form an allegiance that bristles into love. Then a third figure, Leondik, bursts in: shivering, speechless, barely there.
In desperation, the three coexist. More than that, their continued existence depends on that collaboration. Come peacetime, however, and what was equilateral slips out of joint; a impossible Schwarz triangle. Marat leaves, despite his love, and Leondik and Lika marry. However, he hovers over the staid relationship: a motif of forbidden topics – death and food during that bleak 1942 winter, then Marat and, finally, the siege itself – suggest that life only functions through repression. A question hovers: how do we learn from those things we bury?
At one level, Aleksei Arbusov’s 1965 play – in a new version by Penelope Skinner – looks heavy on tropes today, both in its love triangle and its symptoms of war that veer a little close to history syllabus territory. Leondik returns with a drinking problem instead of a left arm. Yet, at another, this is an intricate study of three people that eschews message for hazier observations. Lika’s detachment from the events of that winter grows until she curtails her emotions and dreams, dissociating from life.
And that’s where Alex Sims’s production thrives. It lives in the details of its three tremendous performances. Joanna Vanderham neatly captures the words stuck in Lika’s throat. ‘I’m perfectly happy to stay here,’ she says to Gwilym Lee’s dishevelling Leondik, but a look betrays her. You can see the bile rising in her throat.
Max Bennett’s Marat is best of all, though. He should be parachuted into Pinter immediately after this run, such is the concealed menace beneath the handsome exterior. His jaw muscles clench as he chews over his options. Watch his left hand – the one his opposite number is missing – and it every move is pointed. It rests on the table or drops gracefully on the back of a chair. Everything is calculated and conniving, yet Bennett deftly keeps villainy at bay. In spite of his nastier, manipulative arrogance, you still want Marat and Lika’s love to come to fruition.
What’s missing? Well, emotion and, at the end, credibility. Leondik’s grand gesture, a self-imposed exile to clear the path, is just too bloated and Skinner cannot avoid its lumpen ‘here’s the message’ build-up. Still, there’s plenty to enjoy in this chipped curiosity.