Writer: Lev Dodin, based on the novel by Vasily Grossman
Director: Lev Dodin
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
There’s something about a posthumously published novel that can make one wonder how well it has been edited if the author was not around to do so. That is a feeling that’s inescapable with Life and Fate, Vassily Grossman’s sweeping epic depicting life in Soviet Stalingrad during the latter years of World War II.
With a narrative that concentrates on the family life of theoretical physicist Viktor Shtrum but which also extends into both Stalinist gulags and Nazi concentration camps, transferring the huge scale of Grossman’s work became a gargantuan work for Lev Dodin and the Maly Theatre Company. Workshopped for several years, the resulting work is being presented in Russian with English surtitles for a limited run at the Theatre Royal Haymarket.
Like its source material, it is sweeping in its vision, while remaining family oriented at its heart; also like it source material, it has passages which are overlong and which sap the emotional power from the rest.
Aleksy Porai-Koshitc’s set design bisects the Haymarket stage with a metal fence. Initially, it is used as a volleyball net, characters from different plot lines punting the ball to each other just as the author flits his attention from locale to locale. While the volleyball motif is revisited throughout, the fence tends to be used more literally, as a representation of the internment camp fences. It is reused again as the wall of the Shtrum family’s cramped apartment; in Stalinist Russia, it is suggested, everyone is a prisoner to some degree.
Dodin’s adaptation further emphasises the intertwining fate of the characters in multiple locales by overlapping scenes, commencing one while another has yet to finish. While there is the occasional moment lacking clarity, most notably when transitions involve transitions into and out of flashback, in the main Gleb Filshtinskiy’s lighting cues provide the necessary additional context for the audience to follow.
And yet for all its sprawling, epic quality, Life and Fate only really comes alive in the small moments, with Viktor and his family struggling with life under Stalin’s regime. Sergey Kuryshev’s Viktor wears his worries on full display, confining himself to his home as both his work – his theories about physics not being considered in line with the Party’s wartime concerns – and his Jewish religion force him to recede from public life.
Viktor’s relationship with his wife Lyudmila (Elena Solomonova) is overshadowed by the death of Lyudmila’s son Tolya, although this is a plot line which suffers in the adaptation to the stage. More effective is the conflict felt by Lyudmila’s sister Zhenya (Elizaveta Boyarskaya), who stills feel loyalty to her incarcerated husband even as she develops her relationship with army colonel Novikov (Sergey Vlasov).
It is the family conflicts, and Shtrum’s internal conflict once he receives a call of appreciation for his work in nuclear physics from Stalin himself, that drives the most interesting core of the whole work. And while every digression from that serves to illustrate what life was like in Stalin’s World War II Soviet Union, some of said illustrations are delivered with the heavy hand of didacticism.
Of particular frustration is the comparison between the Stalinist gulag and the Nazi concentration camp. Dodin effectively draws parallels with his visuals, and the repetitive structure shared by inmates in both camps. While the conversations about the similarities between the Communist and Third Reich regimes take up a significant portion of Grossman’s novel and cannot be ignored, there is so much achieved through theatrical shorthand that some of the long, conversational reinforcements feel soul-crushingly overlong.
That said, there is much heart within the show. Most of that comes from monologues from Viktor’s mother Anna (Tatiana Shestakova), reciting the letters she sends her son from the German concentration camp where she spends her last days. Even delivered in a foreign language and with a rough translation projected above her head, Anna’s courage and optimism from an environment designed to crush both is affecting.
Continues until 20 May | Image: © Maly Drama Theatre