February 26th, 2010 by Dave

Well, what to say about the stage adaptation of Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. It goes for nearly three and a half hours and is in Russian with subtitles projected onto a little screen above the stage. On paper it sounds like a rough night at the theatre, and true it does take a sizable amount of patience and immense concentration to get through it, but I’m proud to say I did get through it, I MOSTLY understood what was going on and I enjoyed it a lot!

It’s set in Russia during the height of World War Two. The basic plot is, a prominent Russian Jewish scientist has approached the secret to creating the atomic bomb. Now, that doesn’t sit too well with the Stalinist system – where nationalism and anti-Semitism are becoming unspoken policy in his government. So the physicist, named Victor Strum, must choose to either stay true to his science, himself, his beliefs; or make things easier for himself by admitting to non-existent mistakes and confess to non-existent sins.

That is the main plot, however there a numerous other intertwining plots involving members of Strums family, soldiers on the front, characters imprisoned at a Soviet Prison camp and soldiers at a Nazi concentration camp.

This amazing show has been brought to Perth by the Maly Drama Theatre company of St Petersburg. Along with their set they’ve brought along their 30 plus cast which in itself is impressive, but the magic of the action and story and performances on stage are what really made this show worth seeing.

For someone who is naturally impatient I found it surprisingly easy to sit through the show and remain largely engaged, this is mainly because I knew what I was in for and had gotten myself mentally prepared to sit down for more than three hours reading Russian and engaging in an emotionally draining and story line. The plot itself is amazing and far too complex for me to even try to explain in a way that does it justice. All the characters stories explore the notions of freedom, the problems of the 20th (and 21st) century, faith, family and the fact that terrible things happen to innocent people, life goes on.

There were moments of melodrama that took me out of the trance that I was in for the majority of the show but they were few and far between. The acting was solid throughout the entire cast, although I guess it’s hard for me to tell because they were speaking Russian, but the universal language of human emotion was loud and clear.

I’ve got to say that for a show about the war and death camps, there were a surprising amount of laughs. The earlier moments of comedy were lost on the audience because I think we were all unsure whether or not we were supposed to laugh. I for one was particularly cautious because I didn’t want to insult the director Lev Dodin by laughing at an inappropriate time because he was sitting about five seats away from me.

All in all, Life and Fate asked the audience to have patience and be very focused. Our reward was we got to experience European theatre at its best and see moments of beauty onstage including spine tingling choir made up of prison inmates, forced to sing as they march.

One lowbrow and immature observation; I think it’s the only time I’ll ever a full brass band on stage, where all the musicians are naked.

Props to whoever wrote the program, the inclusion of a synopsis was a stroke of genius. It’s the reason why I was able to follow what was going on.

Click here to go to our earlier post with a video interview with Dina Dovina from Maly Theatre

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