Southwark Playhouse stages Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag love story

Pictured l-r: Daniel Stewart, Adam Venus, Kurt Kansley. Source: Damian Robertson

Pictured l-r: Daniel Stewart, Adam Venus, Kurt Kansley. Source: Damian Robertson

The Love-Girl and the Innocent performed in London after 30 years.

Orange light pours out of a heap of old rubber tires in the corner of the stage. Deafened by metallic thuds, breathing smoke-laden air, the audience at Southwark Playhouse is right there in the exhausting, labour-camp foundry. Solzhenitsyn, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970, is known for his detailed depictions of everyday life in Stalin’s camps. His play, The Love-Girl and the Innocent, set during one week in 1945, explores similar territory to the earlier One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and prefigures The Gulag Archipelago.

Loops of barbed wire decorate the back wall; underneath the wire, lamps briefly represent the showers where the new arrivals in the camp, male and female, strip naked and wash. It is a tribute to the energetic versatility of these sixteen actors that we believe in the constant influx of new prisoners, each clutching a suitcase on an isolated wooden pallet.

“I’ve been trying to make this play happen in London for nearly ten year,” says director Matthew Dunster. The logistical problems of staging Solzhenitsyn’s play about life and love in the Gulag are infamous. The script calls for fifty actors, extensive building works, watchtowers, smoking chimneys, and a lot of molten metal.

This is the first London production of The Love-Girl and the Innocent in more than three decades, but Dunster is a director who welcomes challenges. His recent previous work includes an epic Doctor Faustus at Shakespeare’s Globe and a rollicking, contemporary production, all punks and caravans, of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Regent’s Park.

Cian Barry and Rebecca Oldfield playing love in at Southwork Playhouse. Source: Damian Robertson

The “love-girl” of the title is Lyuba, for whom sex is an inevitable part of the camp’s distorted currency, along with boots, bread rations and cigarettes. The doctor promises to repay her with chocolate cake, sausages and safety. The “innocent” is newcomer, Nemov, whose desperate attempts to cling to some vestige of integrity, form the core of the play’s theme. “Are our own lives really so important?” he asks Lyuba.

Neomv’s sentence, like Solzhenitsyn’s own, is 10 years forced labour for infringing “Article 58”, a sweeping law against counter-revolutionary activity. Solzhenitsyn wrote in The Gulag Archipelago: “there is no step, thought, action, or lack of action under the heavens which could not be punished by the heavy hand of Article 58.”

The play continually questions conventional morality. Granya, played with passion by Emily Dobbs, is in prison for shooting her unfaithful husband, but she turns down an easy job mis-measuring bread rations, asking: “what sort of person would you have to be to cheat another prisoner.”

Dunster uses what he calls “a pared down theatricality” to explore “epic brutalisation … and endemic corruption”. The staging conveys the claustrophobic world of the camp, although any sense of the boundless steppe beyond has gone. Members of the strong ensemble cast announce the stage directions at the start of each scene (autumn hoar frost on the barrack roofs or the backstage rehearsals for a concert), giving the production a distinctly Brechtian feel.

The songs add to this sense of deliberately interrupting the action for moral effect. Music and sound are particularly powerful forces here, from the percussive clang of a crowbar, plaintive on-stage singing, accordion or guitar, to the plangent strings that accompany the inevitable denouement (the early mention of dangerous buckets full of metal is as ominous as Chekhov’s famous gun which cannot be introduced without being fired before the end).

Solzhenitsyn’s work may deal with a specific time and place, but his ultimate question is still valid: What compromises do any of us make to survive? The extreme, amoral microcosm of the camps presents stark choices: “Life has different laws in here … this is the invisible country where 99 men weep while one man laughs.”

The Love-Girl and the Innocent is on at Southwark Playhouse until November 2nd.

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