The House Of Special Purpose – August 2009

6/10

By Heidi Thomas

Directed by Howard Davies

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Monday 3rd August 2009

This was another new play, originally intended as a film but adapted for the stage. Set in the house in Ekaterinburg where the Romanovs were imprisoned and finally executed, it was a well-rounded drama showing the various relationships, mainly amongst the family but including their guards and other staff as well. One of the guards used to work in a laundry, and quite frankly seems to take a bit too much pleasure from getting underwear clean. He’s seconded to teach the girls to do their own laundry, and soon finds one of the girls even more attractive than a bundle of washing. She reciprocates, and so he’s the only guard who doesn’t take part in the final slaughter.

The family themselves are moderately interesting, with Anastasia being the live wire, and Olga being the worrier who looks after Alexei, the Tsarevich. Turns out she was raped during their trip to rejoin their parents. (She was also played by Annabel Scholey tonight, SATTF’s Bianca and Ophelia.) Tatiana and Maria were the other two daughters, but didn’t stick in my mind so much. The main interest however, is in seeing how they lived, and getting some understanding of their situation – not knowing whether the notes they were being sent were from friend or foe (started out friend, ended up foe) nor whether they were about to be rescued or not. They seemed to be valuable pawns for the new regime, but would that last if they were close to being liberated by the counter-revolutionaries? I felt this aspect of their confinement was evoked very effectively.

The guards and prison workers were, if anything, more interesting, probably because their stories aren’t usually told. They were based on real people, and showed the diversity of people brought into the Bolshevik army at that time. Most had been country folk or labourers in factories. They knew nothing about being soldiers – one chap didn’t even know how to load the gun he’d been given, let alone fire it. The experienced guard eventually offered to teach him how to do it, but he was later arrested for being too friendly with the royal family. His father had been a gamekeeper at one of the royal family’s summer residences, so he spent time reminiscing with family and even gave them a book taken from one of their kitchens, a recipe book, which they fell on like starving people. (To read, not to eat.) He wasn’t the one bringing the notes in, and he refused to take a message out, but he was just too fond of remembering the old times, especially when a new man was put in charge of the house. This chap was much less friendly to the family, interrogating the staff at the house, and putting pressure on them to inform on the other staff, never mind the family. The original commander had been quite amenable, letting the ex-Tsar stop work for a bit and even smoke a cigarette while they had a chat.

The final scene, with the family being told to pack for another change of prison, was quite moving. They went down the stairs, with the laundry guy (Yakunin?) staying on stage to give us some reactions to relate to. After some sound effects of them being led into the cellar, the shooting and the screaming started. As the shots were fired, bullet holes appeared in the back wall, with white light shining through them, a very effective way to get across the number of bullets fired. After the shooting and other noises stopped, another guard came back up to tell him (and us) what had happened. The women had so many jewels sewn into their corsets that the bullets couldn’t penetrate, so they had to be finished off at close range. The floor was slippery with blood, and fragments of the precious stones had flown back at the shooters, causing some injuries. It was the expected ending, of course, but emotive nonetheless.

There was an interesting section about the language of fans, and the period detail was excellent, without turning the play into a docu-drama. The set was suitably flexible, with both inside and outside locations evoked simply and effectively. Chairs, tables, etc. were brought on and taken off efficiently, and although I was briefly concerned that this would slow things down too much, the changes were usually covered well by the cast, as in the way the girls all trooped on for their laundry lesson carrying the tubs. All the performances were good, which made for an enjoyable evening.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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