If, to form a relationship with a play, you demand to be wooed with perfect red roses, entertained by fireworks, and seduced by the image of a perfect life, then The Leningrad Siege is not for you. Jose Sanchis Sinisterra’s creation, making its English-language debut at Wilton’s Music Hall, instead sidles up to you, laughs crazily, wobbles, then drifts around in a haze, penetrating yet indeterminate, like an old lady’s lavender water.
Yet if you relax, hold out your hand, and allow yourself to be led into this story of two old ladies living out a confused, often fantastical, “reality” in an old theatre that’s falling apart around them – you’ll find you’re exploring the whole of 20th-century European history from an intelligent, if oddly tilted, perspective.
On one level this is a familiar tale. Natalia (Dierdra Morris) was the ditzy blonde star actress, the mistress of the Great Nestor, the theatre’s director, who died — centre-stage, as he’d lived — in a mysterious fall. (Or at least the women think it was mysterious; they wonder if it was murder.) Priscilla (Rosemary McHale) was the faithful but frustrated wife of the firebrand, who though he was aging had continued to proclaim, with all of the familiar formulae, the cause of the Revolution.
After his death, all the two women had was each other, and the theatre that had been the life’s work of the man they’d shared. So, squabbling furiously and comically, they’ve spent two decades trying to hold out, alone, against the march of “progress,” against the challenges of capitalism, against the enveloping arm of European art-ocrats, against decay from within.
They cling to the belief that the solution — if not to the future of the theatre then at least to the “mystery” of Nestor’s death — will emerge if they can only find the script of The Leningrad Siege, the work that was in rehearsal when he died, amidst the dusty, disordered papers of the revolutionary company’s past.
As a setting, Wilton’s, dusty, fragile and magnificent in its crumbling grandeur, is simply perfect. It is — it doesn’t just become — the Phantom Theatre that they are fighting so hard and hopelessly to protect. Within it, McHale and Morris are two experienced, classy actors, playing two roles that well might tempt senior women of the stage to a bit of murder behind the curtain to obtain.
Beyond the core story, there’s a whole other level of politics, of history, here, that they, and the play and the patina of the Wilton bring out. The two women remain, mostly, faithful to the cause, to the Revolution, to the language and institutions of the early 20th-century Marxist revolutionary. Yet capitalism, in all its myriad of seductive, dangerous ways, threatens not just the theatre, but their determined ideological purity.
We know in one way, how it will all turn out – “the menopause is irreversible, just like history,” Priscilla proclaims — yet do we? Can hope, and expectation, write another ending? Can you grow young, instead of growing old? Can the Revolution?