Running at three and a half hours (with Russian sur-titles), Life and Fate is not for the faint-hearted. Based on Vassily Grosmann’s epic novel which was written in 1960 but banned in Russia until 1988, it has been adapted and directed by Lev Dovin. Apparently the Maly Theatre of St Petersburg spent three years rehearsing, which started with an improvisation of the entire 600 page novel and included research trips to Auschwitch and a former Gulag territory.
The winding narrative is held together by the story of nuclear physicist, Viktor Shtrum, who in 1943 as the world changes around him, suddenly discovers his Jewish mother may mean the end of his life and career. Intercut with episodes from soviet and Nazi labour camps, the ‘open plan’ set allows us to witness Shtrum and his wife falling into a fur-lined bed whilst the captives in striped pyjamas are lined up for dinner in the half light behind them. As director Dodin says of the plays message, ‘If even one solo ghetto exists, all who live in the world are in a ghetto.’
It’s a fascinating opportunity to see Russian Theatre at it’s best, a master-class in Stanislavsky’s technique with the entire ensemble engaged with living on stage at all times. When the cast took their bows, they certainly looked emotionally wrecked. But I’m not convinced that all their hard work actually translated for the audience on an emotional level.
Themes loom larger than characterisation with a fascinating exploration of the parallels between communism and fascism. When Shtrum is lucky enough to reiceve Stalin’s blessing for his work, he starts to believe he deserves this favour, rather than admitting he was just one of the lucky ones. Reinforcing the point, the action is punctuated with his mother reading her last letter to him, before she is sent to her death by the Nazis.
For those who don’t understand Russian, reading sur-titles inevitably means you miss much of the subtlety of the large ensemble cast, working away in corners of the monochrome set. That said, hearing the music of the Russian language adds a whole new dimension in itself.
There is nothing else even vaguely like Life and Fate on in the West End at the moment and there is no doubt, such a serious exploration of a dark time deserves a place on stage today.
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