This review was originally written for The Public Review.
Bravely taking on this play for its first production in London in over 30 years, director and adaptor Michael Dunster has a tough task at hand. The original version requires a cast of 50 and this pared down version is reduced to 16 which is still substantial for a fringe venue such as this. The challenge extends to the structure and scope of the play with an episodic overview of prison life set in a Russian Gulag in 1945. The focus is on corruption, power struggle, obsession with productivity and love within the prison camp. The play is more akin to an anthology of Gulag stories with a faint overall narrative arc: one scene will have prisoners fighting with each other, then shifts to a blossoming love story taking place in the backstage of a theatrical entertainment evening put on by the prisoners.
The portrayal of characters interaction and some finer details of prison life feel authentic and occasionally entertaining. But the depiction of the condition in the prison seems too pleasant apart from some tame mistreatment which bookends the play. The piece can do with some editing and the emphasis of the drama can be highlighted as nothing really happens in the first half other than being a series of scene setters. Then comes the love story out of nowhere and it all ends rather abruptly.
There are some curious decisions made by Dunster. The description of each scene at the beginning by a narrator seems redundant and punctuates the rhythm and flow. The unevenness extends to simple things such as the volume level of the actors or speed of which actors enter and exit the stage, with some dashing in and others leisurely strolling in. Some interjections and interruptions sound like they are mistimed and same with the energy and dynamics, hopping from slow paced to fast and back again. All these little details add up and take their toll on the overall production. The array of accents is sometimes jarring as well. Though they are used to demonstrate the vastness and diversity of Russia, shifting from a Welsh accent to Australian via someone with a Northern accent can be quite distracting.
The set designed by Anna Fleischle consists of piles of wooden pallets and a stack of rubber tyres in the corner. While this gives flexibility to create different parts of the prison, it feels cheap rather than a sense of dilapidation and decay of a harsh condition. At least, the actors are all adequate but as they rotate playing multiple roles, the narrative thread is at times confused if not lost completely. This is a commendable undertaking with its scope, scale and ambition and there is potential to be an interesting venture which unfortunately fail to achieve in its current state.