The War Has Not Yet Started – Southwark Playhouse, London

Writer: Mikhail Durnenkov

Translator: Noah Birksted-Breen

Director: Gordon Anderson

Reviewer: Stephen Bates

Russian writer Mikhail Durnenkov’s play is set on the verge of a nervous breakdown. It begins with three characters languishing “in the zone”, helped by drink or immersion in a video game, and then proceeds to demonstrate the hazards away from their domestic cosiness – warfare, human frictions, catastrophes real or imagined, near or far, the unkindness of strangers, and so on.

The War Has Not Yet Started is playing in repertory with The Here and This and Now, both productions having originated at the Theatre Royal, Plymouth. The play is made up of a dozen scenes, each of around five minutes duration, linked only loosely by the central theme.

Three actors, Hannah Britland, Sarah Hadland and Mark Quartley, play all the roles, often without regard to age or gender. Thus, a possessive husband (Britland) threatens another man (Hadland) for lusting after his wife (Quartley). A father (Britland), mother (Quartley) and son (Hadland) make up a dysfunctional family. This contributes to the surreal feel of Gordon Anderson’s production which is counterbalanced by Bob Bailey’s very real set design – drab wallpaper behind a sofa, chairs and wardrobe that look over half a century old.

When a television newsreader (Hadland) returns home to find his/her partner (Quartley) in a state of terror because of an item of fake news that he/she had broadcast, the play brings in a neat topical touch; and, when a power cut hits an overseas airport, panic erupts in a blacked-out departure lounge and brings to the fore the sense of foreboding that we can all feel when surrounded by strangers and far from home.

However, scenes are inconsistent both in their style and their effectiveness. More twists in the tail or “punchlines” are needed and perhaps a robot (Quartley) who has received an absurdity implant could have helped Durnenkov – added dashes of humour in the manner of Eugene Ionesco might, at least, have made dry scenes funnier.

Some scenes are forgettable instantly, others beg to be expanded further. On one hand, the monologue of a character (Hadland) who has kicked the smoking habit, shouting triumphantly, with the backing of the 1812 Overture, seems too slight to merit stage time. On the other hand, when an abused wife (Britland) creates a fictional lover to combat her violent husband (Quartley), we see the germ of an idea for a strong dramatic concept, but, sadly, it is over too quickly.

Overall, the play is something of a curate’s egg, good only in parts and it is far too scrappy. The world is indeed a threatening place, but this production does not get us sufficiently “in the zone” to forget about it.

Runs in repertory until 10 February 2018


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