Back in those long-ago days of the Cold War, there was great excitement in the West about the samizdat literature from behind the Iron Curtain. It contained exotic, seductive hints of a forbidden, rebellious sub-culture sneaking behind those stone-faced lines of Red Army soldiers stamping across Red Square.
That looks like ancient history now, but there is still one state in Europe in which much the same conditions prevail – Belarus, with its madly moustached and oddly autocratic president Alexander Lukashenko. Struggling to survive in this suffocating environment is an independent-minded theatre group, aptly named Free Theatre.
To put on its performances in Belarus it has to adopt the kinds of dodges that were all too familiar to dissidents of the post-Stalinist age: banned from a theatre, it moved to a bar. Banned from there, it moved to a private flat. Banned from that, it moved into a forest, pretending that the event was a wedding, until the secret service men left.
Now it has escaped from that suffocating pressure, emerging into the free, if grubby, air of Islington with its first English-language production, aptly titled Techniques of Breathing in an Airlocked Space. Written by the Russian Natalia Moshina, this is not an obviously political play – indeed it is a strong character-centred piece, surprisingly living up to its billing of containing plenty of laughs.
You might find it hard to believe when I tell you that the central line of the plot concerns a 19-year-old woman in a cancer sanitorium, seemingly with little hope of recovery, but from the very first scene as that woman, Nadia (Rebecca Gross) encounters the bonily awkward adolescent Vitya — he’s “in” for leukemia — it is evident that Moshina is a playwright who understands the need to entertain, whatever her underlying messages might be.
And it is evident that this will be a production of considerable acting class. We might disappear behind the head-scarfed baldness into what could easily be cliched teenage angst, but there’s an honest awkwardness that is both moving, and funny.
I say plot line, but there is only a thin line of connection between this scene and the one that follows – four young students try to tackle a challenging PR assignment – to dream up a new religion that will make a fortune for its founders. There’s Timofei (Daniel Bayle), the cool one, with the appropriately ultra-blonde girlfriend Sveta (Lisa McDonald), and two young strivers, Venya (Tom Newton) and Kilt (Matthew Pearson).
This is a group that has learned to talk the talk of the get-rich-quick white-shoe brigade, but their underlying cultural pessimism – thoughts say of a worn out, work-weary old god letting the world run astray for lack of energy to rein-in his creation – keeps pushing through the hype.
After that “new Russia” it is back to old, with the woman we know only as The Actress. This is a shining, standout performance by Margaret Tully of a beautifully written, and very Russian, soliloquy, a complete life of soaring artistic ambition and disappointed hopes. Tully produces a frenetic, captivating depression, a performance that echoes in the mind.
The play has been translated by Noah Birksted-Bren of Sputnik Theatre, which specialises in staging new Russian-language plays in the UK. His work, for all its casually youthful slang, keeps a captivating musical lyricism.
I walked out of the theatre thinking that while these had been spectacularly well-sketched scenes, there should have been more development, more plot progress, some sense of resolution. But then, when I pondered the play some more, I realised that is a very western European perspective.
For many now in Russia, and the rest of the old eastern bloc, life doesn’t progress. There’s conflict and pain and superficial change, but like The Actress, they find themselves sprinting forward with the highest of hopes, only to be mysteriously transported back to the starting point.
Moscow’s repressions produced some of the finest literature of the 20th century. On this evidence, Lukashenko, no doubt much to his displeasure, is also be producing a fine literature of resistance. That this production has as its patrons Sir Tom Stoppard and Vaclav Havel seems appropriate.
But it should also provoke the question – beyond supporting the play, what are we doing to support the broader political effort for freedom?
The production continues until September 9 at the Old Red Lion (with online booking). Ph: 0207-8377816.