Writer and Director: Matthew Jameson
Ten Days That Shook the World, American journalist John Reed’s first-hand account of the 1917 Russian October Revolution, is one of the seminal works of 20th century journalism. Writer and director Matthew Jameson has spent ten years adapting Reed’s work for the stage (he also takes the role of Reed as onstage narrator). Ten Days, currently playing at the Space Theatre, is manifestly a labour of love created by an ambitious theatre-maker who indubitably knows his Russian history. There are few show programmes that contain a page long bibliography of history reference books. This playwright’s passion for his subject shines through like a searchlight.
The resulting theatrical enterprise, a semi-immersive, blow-by-blow account of events that ultimately precipitated the Russian Civil War, set in the present day, sprawls over a timespan and cast of characters that sometimes feels as expansive as Russia itself. It will no doubt delight aficionados of the historical intricacies of revolutionary bolshevism. Others may well end up scratching heads wondering what on earth is going on, and indeed when they will get to go home.
Jameson has some interesting points to make in Ten Days. The success of the October revolution arose as a result of events so ludicrously implausible that a novelist would shy away from inventing them. For example, by unfortunate happenstance on the night before the revolution Lenin is waylaid on the street by two roving policeman. He narrowly avoids arrest by playing the part of a drunken factory worker, this despite the fact alcohol is legally prohibited in Moscow. Later, a soldier’s attempt to signal the opening salvos of the revolution is almost curtailed by the fact no one can see the signal. The writer also argues persuasively that there is a decent chance modern Russia would have ended up as a functioning liberal democracy had the revolution failed. This was, after all, the first nation in Europe to give women the vote. Things could have been different.
The problem is Jameson possibly knows a little too much about events in 1917. Ten Days gets so bogged down in the minutiae of revolutionary committee meetings, double-dealings, back-stabbing, and the machinations of shadowy political and military figures, that the central drama gets lost. Short passages unfold with dizzying speed across a dozen different locations. Other scenes rumble on much longer than necessary, losing momentum and the audience in the process. The ensemble cast of ten inhabit so many different characters, with so many different regional accents, that, aside from the central due of Lenin (Matthew John Wright) and Trotsky (Oyinka Yusuff), it can be difficult to work out who is doing what, when.
Key turning points in the narrative get lost in a flurry of superfluous, heavy-handed exposition. Adding in information about the percentage of pre-revolutionary Russian GDP made up of alcohol sales is interesting, up to a point (12% if you must know). But this kind of esoteric detail, while catnip to the historical enthusiasts, adds not a jot to a dramatic journey or characterisation. One badly wishes Jameson had a firmer hand on the editor’s pen when putting together his final draft.
Nor is it altogether clear what setting events in the present day contributes to the mix. Equipping political commissars with lanyards, snappy suits, and mobile phones presumably has a purpose. Faux TV news coverage in the intervals hints this is an effort to draw parallels with modern-day political happenings in Russia and beyond. If so, despite a brief reference to events in Ukraine, it fails to convince.
Matthew John Wright does his best to bring some depth to Lenin, whose revolutionary fervour masks sheer bewilderment at his swift rise to power. Yusuff brings a pleasingly Machiavellian feel to the scheming Trotsky. Tice Oakfield’s turn as the braying, equine Tsar Nicholas has humorous echoes of a young King Charles. But in the end, however immersive it aims to be and despite sporadic attempts at Pythonesque comedy, Ten Days is an epic that feels way too long. Joining in with audience chants of “All power to the Soviets” and “Peace, Bread, Land” is amusing enough ten minutes in. Two and a half hours later you may find yourself with a post-revolutionary case of buyer’s regret.
Runs until 25 March 2023