Saturday, 17 May 2008
The edge of history
It was the first preview, but I'd seen the play before. I had memories of the original production in the Pit in the Barbican, when the Royal Shakespeare Company premiered Stephen Poliakoff's Breaking the Silence. That made me hesitate before booking for the new production. I recalled impressions and atmosphere rather than substance and performance but I couldn't forget the railway carriage set or the single-minded arrogance of the play's central character. I think 1984 was the year when I worked out I'd attended more than a hundred performances. If that one stayed with me, it was among the best in a good year for drama. "No," I thought, when I heard about the revival. "I probably shan't go.
But cheap ticket offers always lure me and £5 a seat for the first preview was too good an offer to miss. I rang up so promptly I secured good seats too - in the fourth row - and arranged to attend with a friend. It was a good excuse for wine and a meal before the show.
I like going to Nottingham Playhouse. It's not too big, the staff are friendly and the theatre-goers don't seem so posh or fancily dressed as the slightly scary clientele of the nearby Royal Centre. When I book for the Playhouse, the box office staff like to talk about the play - they seem part of the whole enterprise, which is always a good sign. This time the young woman who answered the phone talked about the various seating options and added her reflections on the first act of the play, which she had seen in rehearsal. Her enthusiasm reminded me how much I like theatre-going.
I was caught up in the play at once. When I saw that the first half lasted 90 minutes, I wondered whether my attention space was good enough. But as soon as the first actor entered the railway carriage set, I wanted to know what happened to these people. And it didn't matter that I had seen the play before.
Nikolai, the central character (based on Stephen Poliakoff's grandfather) is a Russian Jew with two passions. One is for ordered, elegant, private living. His wife must dress formally, defer to him and follow restrictive conventions, even though the family is living in a single railway carriage with bullet holes in the walls. The Russian Revolution has just taken place but Polya, the servant, still waits at table where meals are served on silver plates. Nikolai's other passion is the urge to capture sound on film - a surprising pursuit since he cannot imagine mingling with the public to attend a cinema.
At first, Nikolai's survival seems improbable. Equally unlikely is his appointment to supervise the inspection of the new telephone system of the northern region. But his wife, son and maid seize on their opportunity for survival in a changing world. As we watch, Nikolai's charm, single-mindedness and state funds seem to give him the chance to invent the first "talkies". Meanwhile his wife Evgenia forms an alliance with Polya, the maid, which provides both with opportunities for happiness and a fuller life. As they develop and Sasha, the watchful son, grows up, Nikolai seems unchanging.
The railway carriage passes close to danger and the great events of history. When the play was first performed, Thatcherism was on the rise but the world gained some uneasy sense of stability from the tension between the super-powers. Now we live in an even less certain world. Millions of people are displaced and many more are struggling to understand or survive.
Breaking the Silence doesn't downplay the risks or brutality of those early years of the Russian revolution. But through one family, it shows a time when change and danger co-existed with an urge to create, invent and imagine. It conjures up excitement at technological change as well as nostalgia for a lost way of life. As for the end of the play ... well, I'm not going to spoil it by saying.
I'm going to name all the cast, because every role contributed to the success of the performance I saw. Jonathan Wright and Jim Findley were guards who were also human, whatever they did and witnessed. Owen Aaronovitch as Verkoff, the ex-butcher who becomes Nikolai's unlikely employer, was a suitable contrast with the family; without ever upstaging them, he suggested there was more to the character than we saw on stage. Diana Kent and Celia Meiras developed convincingly as Evgenia and Polya - it will be a long while before Polya's final appearance fades from my mind. As Sasha, Ilan Goodman grew convincingly from spoilt pet clutching a teddy bear to a youth desperate to fit in with Soviet society. Philip Bretherton, as the apparently unchanging Nikolai, offered a process of slow revelation until, at the end, the audience came to see beneath the arrogant exterior a man who loved his country and cared about its people.
Estelle Richardson is a relatively young director. After a production as good as this, I'll be watching for her name on future playbills.
The play runs till the end of the month. I don't know if it's moving elsewhere - only that it should.