Life and Fate (Vassily Grossman & Lev Dodin)

Maly Drama Theatre – Theatre of Europe – St Petersburg

His Majesty’s Theatre

reviewed by Neville Cohn

This is definitely not for those whose idea of going to the theatre is experiencing a few hours of genial mummery. Life and Fate occupies a very different world. It is a tale of physical and emotional violence, much of it state-sanctioned and so unnerving as to leave the viewer limp. It’s a tale that brands itself indelibly on the consciousness.

But for those who like their theatre pieces to have a clearly defined beginning, middle and end, Life and Fate might well be problematical, even bewildering. It could be thought of as a montage, a series of mainly brief episodes that occur during Wold War II in the cities and gulags of Russia and the death camps of the Nazis.

Like some malevolent serpent slithering through this often brutally confronting production is an ever-present anti-Semitism whether of the German variety (with its sights set on the complete extermination of European Jewry courtesy of the appalling Wannsee declaration which the Nazis were pleased to call The Final Solution) or the Russian version where an irrational, centuries-lomg hatred of the Jews seems an ingrained feature of the national psyche and all the more virulent for becoming state policy.

Periodically and improbably, we hear the strains of Schubert’s Standchen (known throughout the English-speaking world as Serenade). It reminded one that in some of the nazi’s concentration camps, an orchestra of inmates would be ordered to play this or that music as victims of the nazis’ were marched to the gas chambers. Can there have been a more cynical and evil exploitation of music than this?

An all-purpose set is an ingenious construction: a handball net also serves as a concentration camp or gulag fence, there’s a miscellany of cupboards, a battered, tinny piano, beds and chairs. Ingenious lighting does much to heighten mood.

There are no weak links in the cast which is superbly disciplined. For the many who do not understand Russian, there were first rate surtitles flashed onto a lengthy narrow screen above the action.

Tatiana Shestakova is admirable as Ana Shtrum, the family matriarch, diminutive,  soft spoken medical doctor who tends to other ghetto Jews before she is gassed and cremated in one of Germany’s nazi death camps, an ever-present spectre.

Nearly all the conversations focus on the war and fleeting moments of tenderness throw the encompassing horrors into even bolder relief so much so that at interval, one left the auditorium with a near-palpable sense of relief.

Life and Fate tells of a Russian nuclear scientist Victor Shtrum (Sergey Kuryshev) who happens to be Jewish – and this places him in a vulnerable, even dangerous, position. But because of Stalin’s desperate need to build an A-bomb, there is breathtaking cynicism on his part in bringing Shtrum out of exile to work on the project.

Again and again, the craziness of the Soviet system is underlined, memorably by a high official rejecting Albert Einstein’s theories as unacceptable because they conflict with Lenin’s world view!! Nothing so demonstrates the ethical bankruptcy and the mind-numbing, blind acceptance of what is palpable, sheer nonsense.

Precisely how many died, how many murdered, in the name of such idiocy, will probably never be exactly known. Productions such as this are crucial to keeping the memory of the slaughtered millions alive.

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