Theremin – Greenwood Theatre, London

Writer and Director: Petr Zelenka
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Scientist biopics remain in fashion and after the success of last year’s Photograph 51 with Nicole Kidman, Dejvicke Theatre presents a new play about Russian academic, musician and spy Lev Theremin showing at the Greenwood Theatre as part of the 20th Made in Prague Festival. Scientists, of course, make good character studies and in Petr Zelenka’s extremely long play he examines how the seemingly disparate strands of Theremin’s life came together.

tell-us-block_editedThe play opens in 1920s America as Theremin welcomes his agent Hans Goldberg, composer friend Joseph Schillinger and couple-about-town the Rosenbergs to dinner where they first discuss a mysterious new non-contact instrument Theremin has created – the thereminvox – which emits waves of sound using a sensor. Inspired, music is quickly written and Theremin goes on to perform at Yankee stadium. But not only is he being pursued by Mrs Rosenberg who wants him for a lover but he’s also in the employ of the Russian secret service.

It’s a shame Zelenka’s play gets lost in unnecessary detail because he has an excellent basic story, a cast of largely engaging characters and a fine cast. Yet the plot is so meandering and with so many loose ends it’s very difficult for an audience to engage properly with the ideas of Theremin as a genius and a betrayer. Ivan Trojan’s lead performance is consistently appealing and he shows the many facets of a man who is simultaneously incredibly intelligent, easily distracted, callous, shallow, arrogant, committed and concerned for his family, but the point of this gets somewhat lost in the overwhelming volume of information Zelenka crams in.

A big part of the problem is the length, having already started nearly 30 minutes late, slow doesn’t even begin to cover it. The show runs for nearly two hours before the interval, and when the audience return with their drinks at around 10.20pm it adds a further hour on top of that. It’s a huge demand to make of an audience and one that doesn’t actually deliver on that investment; the pace is slow throughout and Zelenka as director gives no sense of where the story is going to keep the audience involved, and then throws in the odd tangential lecture on the vacuum tube or the mathematics of music, which only weigh the piece down further.

The play has a lot of funny moments and it is to Zelenka’s credit that the audience is still laughing three hours in and much of that is in the performances of the secondary characters including David Novotny as Theremin’s optimistic and good-natured agent, and Jiri Babek as the private detective turned thereminvox player who finds himself in the orchestra by mistake while investigating Theremin for Mrs Rosenberg – a subplot that doesn’t really develop.

Zelenka’s play has a lot of the right pieces but they need to be put together slightly differently so as to tell a more focused story. The spy sections are virtually wasted and we learn almost nothing about that aspect of his life and how he managed to fool those around him while simultaneously betraying virtually everyone he came into contact with. Despite Trojan’s performance, it just takes far too long to get to the heart of this story as Theremin eventually reflects on the whys and wherefores of his life. Sadly Theremin places showcasing the writer’s vast knowledge over audience experience. It’s clearly a passion project for Zelenka but rather an indulgent one.

Reviewed on 5 November 2016 | Image: Hynek Glos


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