Friday 25 March 2011

Political righteousness and hormones

Remembrance Day, Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, London

‘The moment we start talking, we turn to politics,’ grunts one ex-SS soldier to another, in Aleksey Scherbak’s Remembrance Day (in a translation by Rory Mullarkey). But it isn’t only soldiers with politics on the brain in Scherbak’s new play. Everybody’s at it. A lot.

That’s perhaps unsurprising, considering Remembrance Day is set in Latvia, a veritable bullseye of political conflict. With Latvians and Russians living cheek by jowl, it’s a country pulsing with polarised political allegiances. In purely cynical terms, Latvia is perfect dramatic fodder. Only Scherbak has pushed the tension one notch higher: his play is set on the eve of an annual procession of Nazi veterans, an event that sets Latvia’s political tensions boiling over. 

But a country alone does not a play make, so Scherbak has crystallised the country’s conflicting loyalties in one, very unhappy family. Daughter Anya is the play’s dramatic grenade and it is her burgeoning political persuasions that split the family in two. Her new passions might also have something to do with sexy young political activist Boris. The play opens with the two planning to protest at the imminent Nazi veteran procession, brimming with political righteousness and hormones. Fired up in more ways than one, Anya announces to her family her intent to protest.

And so, the tangled family unit rapidly unravels. Father, Sasha (Michaeld Nardone) is initially frustrated by his daughter’s naiive rants and forbids her to attend the rally. But, after some finagling from strained mum, Sveta (Michelle Fairley), dad relents and agrees to help his daughter paint a banner. Side by side, they scrawl out their slogan: ‘Fascism: The Greatest Evil of Them All!’. As they paint, dad attempts to teach his daughter political compassion, arguing that the SS soldiers are simply harmless old men now. He fails. It’s only early into the play,  but this painting session feels suspiciously like potted politics.

The slightly see-through devices continue. Anya (Ruby Bentall) has an old friend next door, Uncle Misha (Struan Rodger), who also happens to be a Soviet Army veteran. She slides between the two adjacent camps, bursting in and out of red doors, railing at the injustice of it all to her neighbour and preaching politics to her family next door. Bentall is a committed performer but, as her father’s actions become increasingly provocative, she grows shrill, her voice a tad two dimensional.

Perhaps all young activists are a little stiff, as their strong beliefs temporarily cloud over all other concerns. But Anya’s character feels particularly stifled by this political strain. Everything becomes secondary to her beliefs, her impassioned speeches. Her actions (at one point, she leaves an old man to die, after she spots his SS jacket), her dialogue (‘Until we change this country, people have to make a stand!’) and her tone are all subsumed by her passionate patriotism. Emotions and vulnerability never seem to get in the way. It means we hear a lot about the thoughts of young Latvians but what we don’t really hear is Anya’s own voice. 

Other characters behave oddly too, and their actions often feel inconsistent. After Anya’s father expresses sympathy with the SS veterans on national TV, his wife turns on him almost instantly. It is an acutely swift shift, especially considering the loving and playful relationship depicted only minutes earlier. The son – a mouthpiece for progressive values and the need for everyone to just get along – nearly beats two kids to death by the end of the play. Anya’s love interest, a seemingly balanced chap, reveals himself to be a cold-hearted political schemer straight after the two have sex. And Anya, with only a nascent interest at politics at the start of Remembrance and unable to even piece together a slogan for her banner, is a rifle wielding political activist by curtain down. 

The only two voices to rise above the political clamouring are those of the vodka-swilling, crotchety ex-SS soldiers. Director Longhurst teases a glowing chemistry from these two survivors, who drink like demons, compare war wounds and bitch, woefully, about the youth of today. They are easily the most authentic characters on stage. Perhaps Scherbak spent so much time trying to make the Nazi sympathisers likeable that he ran out of time for everyone else. 

Till 16 April 2011


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