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The Promise



The Promise

Company B present THE PROMISE. Original play by Alexi Arbuzov. New Version by Nick Dear. Based on the translation by Ariadne Nicolaeff. At the Belvoir Theatre.

THE PROMISE by Alexi Arbuzov was first published in 1965 and had an English stage production in November, 1966 at the Oxford Playhouse transferring into London the following year. The cast was a stellar young company; Judi Dench, Ian McShane, Ian McKellen. Mr McKellen (as Leonidik) won Most Promising New Actor for the performance. “Ancient” history, but indicates one of the reasons to do this play. It covers some Russian History, beginning in March to May in 1942; through to March to May in 1946 and finally December 1959 and in 3 acts over 12 scenes, over that 15 years, we trace the relationship of three young Soviet youths. To a Russian audience, I imagine, the history of the settings are truly significant and the telling of this story would be particularly deep in its resonances. To us, in Australia, without true cultural memories of these moments in history, the story could easily be simply a soap opera journey of the relationships between the young people. The reason to do this play today then, seems, principally, to be, to reveal the potential and kinetic skills of the three actors. To see good acting. Simon Stone, the director, has cast well. These three actors, mostly, deserve watching and, ultimately, thanking positively. Alison Bell (Lika), Ewen Leslie (Marat) and Chris Ryan (Leonidik).

The play begins with a sixteen young old girl, Lika, sheltering in an almost deserted apartment building during a sensational early time in the siege of Leningrad and the return of the eighteen year old resident, Marat. Over two early scenes the besieged develop a relationship over two weeks only to have a third person, seek refuge, Leonidik. The new arrival adds complications to the developing relationship and the rest of the play shows us the dynamic growths, as they distort and evolve in unpredictable ways through Soviet history.

In this production, as it was when I saw it, the first scenes in act one between Lika and Marat were rushed and tended to be shouted. They had speed and energy but little time for registering and reflecting the layerings of growing knowledge and evolving subtleties of the interactions and developments of the characters. When Leonidik burst in and collapsed, a shift in the playing style began, but it was not until the second act (which begins with Lika and Leonidik, in a mirroring two scenes to the first act, between Lika and Marat) that a mostly satisfactory style was found and sustained thanks to the control of Mr Ryan. As Mr Stone writes, in a very good Director’s Note in the program, in connection to Russian dramatic literature, “from Gogol and Ostrovsky to Chekhov and Gorky…. These plays are about time and longing: yearning for a better future, regret for an unrealised past, confusion at how to live in the present moment.” The connection to Chekhov and perhaps the greatest TIME journey, THE THREES SISTERS, is evident, and as the program note tells us: “In one evening we witness half a lifetime.”

It is the relative failure of the early acting in the first act to give time to the sub-textual growths, the Chekhov/Stanislavsky psychological realism technique, that caused a disconcerting and uncomfortable appreciation of the early scenes of the play. Both English versions of the play, first by Nicolaeff and then Dear are syntactically written in very specific short sentence structures with ellipses and pauses indicated. The sub-textual opportunities in the syntax to create and reveal the evolving states of the characters in the first act are ignored and rushed over. There is a lot of speed (and shouting) but not enough detail. What good acting is (especially necessary in Chekhov), is packed with Detail at Speed. So, if you rush the syntax or worse do not acknowledge it you lose the sub-textual clarities. Alison Bell has a tendency to play at a brash level of coarse ballsiness, (There is also a habit of vocal technique which soft pedals the early words in a sentence structure and then a PUNCH of the key word. It is a technique that is evident by its heavy repetitive usage – she tends to shriek, bang or trumpet the key words and takes us outside the character, habitually) accompanied by a raucous and ugly habit of laughter to cover the emotional growths (evident in the work she gave us in RABBIT last year at the Wharf), and in the early scenes, Ewen Leslie falls into line with her and rushes text back at her. Substituting theatrical energy for taking the acknowledgments of subtle truths. The play, consequently, seems to be pallid and thin. However, with the entrance of Chris Ryan into the equation, despite the hurrying of his first big speech, he subsequently gives reflective cues to what is happening, and the others in the company begin to relax and similarly attend and register. Up until his entrance there has been a lot of “action” but little “active listening”. The listeners in any scene is the guide for the audience as to how to behave, respond, and if it is not given time to be expressed and absorbed by the audience, the play is just a superficial explication of information which could just as easily be read. (Why go to the theatre, then?)

Chris Ryan gives a wonderful performance, and as the play develops, especially in the last act, Mr Leslie comes up to the plate and gives a very moving reading that matches Mr Ryan’s insight and truth. All three are wonderful actors. Mr Ryan tells the sub-textual truth subtly and accompanied by clear narrative accuracy, all of the time, at every opportunity, he is in action all the time he is on stage. Watching him alone could give you a vivid sense of the play’s journey. Mr Leslie reveals his strengths as the production unravels, and grows stronger and clearer as the play progresses. Ms Bell is a highly theatrical performer and tends to play the theatrical truths with bravado but nearly almost always hesitates from going deeper and revealing real personalised experiences of the truth of the moment- we see a very good actor at work, not necessarily a real life force that we are prepared to believe in the context of the given circumstances of the play – actor not character. From the conversations I have had with other witnesses to the production, and certainly reading other reviews, it is clear that these performances are being enhanced and densely calibrated as the season continues. Be patient with the first act, come back after the second interval and you will, possibly, have a very satisfying experience in the theatre. I did.

After the wildly provocative deconstruction of Wedekind’s SPRING AWAKENING, downstairs in the B Sharp space, last year, and reading about the very ,apparently, contentious contribution to a project in Melbourne called 3XSISTERS (see Theatre Notes-Alison Croggon’s blog) that Mr Stone has directed, I had some apprehension as to his approach to this play. Gratefully, he gave it the respect it demands and in my estimation showed an exciting potential to future work .- (not that I didn’t think SPRING AWAKENING revealed potential, just a fear of a lack of disciplined judgement when it came to an author’s work and intention.) The Set Design and the investigative explorations that Adam Gardiner talks about in the program was thorough and although the final choices are not entirely successful, it is very ( I reckon where you are seated, may make re-action different) arresting. A parquet, revolving square floor, bare essentially of properties (until the last act), with accumulating furniture and props on the flat along a back wall was ,from where I was seated, an idea of merit. (If you were seated opposite the back wall, then the central raised square may have been an obstacle to your picture, in the story telling and may have been an obstructive, puzzling choice.) The Costume choices (Mel Page) lacked the depth of detail that the scenes seemed to require. Their story telling was underdeveloped with inaccurate details (The costume of Leonidik, Marat and Lika did not, for instance, in the first act seem to reflect the temperature hardships of the below zero temperatures of the given circumstances hence some of the Drama of the act was lost – the dilemma of the characters not imaginatively expanded.) The Lighting Design was very picturesque (Niklas Pajanti) and the Sound Composition was very collusive in creating the right affect, avoiding sentimentality but supporting the emotional states. (Although the sound design of the act one explosions seemed to be underdeveloped and lacked reality.)

What I felt lacking was the Russian politics of the very specific Time indications of the scenes indicated by the writer. Act one didn’t reveal or absorb the worst of the siege in the acting journey through the time indications of the writer’s guide lines, hunger and danger and death (4,ooo dead in the month of March alone of hunger!!!) the stress, wear and tear of the siege on the behaviour of these characters not sufficiently drawn – the end of the act physically needs to register not only the emotional exhaustion but the real physical possibility of extinction. The specifics of the 1946 date, where victory in war was shadowed by the re-turning tyranny of Stalin, as he reasserted his control with the fear of death or imprisonment-The First of May celebration outside the window. – Who are WE? The dominating question of the act – What did we fight for? Disillusionment overwhelming the characters as the act unwinds – the horror of Hiroshima even brought to centre stage, what is mankind? What have we as soldiers done, (Read Anthony Beevor’s BERLIN) to create a world that seems bent on permanent prison. Is this what we have de-humanised ourselves for? Next, just what is the specific purpose of Mr Arbuzov’s decision to set act three so specifically in December, 1959? Mr Stone does not seem able to bring this to bear on the playing of the act. The given circumstances of the political world that this personal story is told within is under investigated. For instance the zealous belief of any Communist in the time of Stalin in declaring the belief and practice that there is no personal life for a good comrade, throws the personal love triangle of these characters on the stage into enormous conflict and helps clarify some of the choices of the turn of events made by these young people. There is definite strain in the motivations of these characters that is not fully evolved. Reading 900 DAYS.THE SIEGE OF LENINGRAD by Harrison E. Salisbury certainly prepared me for a more bleak and desperate world than the one we saw. Similarly, Simon Montefiore’s STALIN:THE COURT OF THE RED CZAR and even his recent novel SASHENKA give a wretched insight into the struggle of the ordinary person into the behavioural patterns of a human in the iron clasp of cruel political power tyranny. “I have served Comrade Stalin and the Party with absolute fervour all my adult life. So has my wife Sashenka. However, if the party demands… I remain in my heart devoted to the Communist Party and Comrade Stalin personally: I have committed grave sins and crimes. If I face the Supreme Measure of Punishment, I shall gladly die a Bolshevik with the name of Stalin reverently on my lips. Long live the Party. Long live Stalin!” The need under threat of death to reject any personal needs that did not serve the Soviet is not really present as a vital element in this production. The Russians that I have spoken to about this play regard it highly as a true expression of the tragedy of the people of the Soviet. This play, within the censorship of the period it was written, subtly explores this. In the context of the Big Picture of the politics of the time.

Later this year Mr Stone is presenting downstairs at B Sharp THE ONLY CHILD, an adaptation of Ibsen’s LITTLE EYOLF. Which way will he tread? SPRING AWAKENING or THE PROMISE. Let us hope that the continuous evolution of this very interesting director keeps his audience contented with his visions.

Playing now until 23 August.
For more information or to book click here.