By: Rona Munro
Directed by: Roxana Silbert
Venue: Hampstead Theatre
Date: Wednesday 4th May 2011
For those of us who’ve been paying attention, this play offered little new information about the Soviet Union’s early space program, and although it told the story well enough, with some good performances, I could have done with more humour to lighten the fairly dark tone of the piece, especially with a running time not far short of three hours.
The set had a back wall with large, dirty windows and central double doors. Above these, a platform could be revealed when needed. To the right was a sweep of metal, curving up into the flies. Furniture was brought on and off as needed, and once or twice I felt this was a bit slow, but it worked OK for the most part. The costumes were presumably authentic for the period (they should be – with all the Russian plays the RSC’s been doing, their costume department must be bulging at the seams with this stuff).
The opening scene had Stalin speechifying from the platform about the threat from without and within. As he spoke, a couple of guards and some shambling prisoners came on to the stage, and gradually, through collective mime, we were led to understand that this was a labour camp, and conditions were really, really bad. Personally I felt they overdid this bit, with the mime looking very actors’ workshop, and although parts of this scene were useful later on, it could probably be trimmed if not dropped altogether with some rewriting elsewhere. Anyway, we met Korolyov, the father of the Russian space program, his mate Old Man, and a young female doctor who’s inexperienced in the ways of the gulag, but soon learns the ropes.
The next scene is set in the prison factory where the USSR is developing its own ICBMs, out in the back of beyond. Korolyov’s wife and daughter have just arrived from Moscow, and we learn that if Glushko, Korolyov’s current boss, didn’t shop him during the purges, his wife certainly did. This makes it a bit difficult for her to stay with her husband, especially as she wants her Moscow life, and he gets so obsessed with his work that he wouldn’t see much of them anyway.
It’s a big day for the project, as they’re being visited by members of the Politburo and they have to present them with a success story. Turns out Stalin is dead, Khrushchev has taken over, and with his right hand man Brezhnev, he’s keen to be brought up to speed on Uncle Joe’s secret little project. When Korolyov gives him the information in a way he can understand, Khrushchev puts him in charge of the whole project, and pardons all the prisoners. Not only that, Korolyov is finally able to put forward his dream of space flight, and with Khrushchev keen to beat the Americans at something, Sputnik can finally fly.
We soon get through the early years of the space program. From Sputnik’s beeping at the world we move swiftly on to the cosmonaut program, glossing over the animal test flights with a mendacious assurance to the first four test pilots that all the dogs came back alive. The reality is admitted to Geladze, the military officer responsible for selecting cosmonaut trainees, and who provides the hard line Communist perspective through to the end of the play. For example, he recommends Yuri Gagarin as the first cosmonaut because he has impeccable proletarian credentials, even though his test scores weren’t as high as at least one of the other pilots.
There’s also a glimpse of the degree of suffering which the Soviets were prepared to inflict on their own men, when we see a short encounter between Gagarin and a human guinea pig, a wreck of a man slumped in a wheelchair. He’s been through the same physical endurance tests as the trainees – heat, cold, oxygen deprivation, large g-forces – and taken to the limit of each so that the scientists know how far they can push the trainees without killing them, the implication being that some of the guinea pigs weren’t so lucky. In some ways it was harder to watch than the gulag stuff, not only because I found it easier to relate to a specific individual, but because he was so happy to be serving his country in this way. The doctor looking after him was the doctor from the camp in scene one.
The Gagarin launch scene was done in an unusual way, and I’m still not sure if I liked it or not. With various people scurrying around the stage, and tempers fraying as the deadline approaches, Gagarin was up on the platform waiting, while his backup was in his flight suit on the stage, hoping his chance would come. It didn’t. Gagarin was given the go-ahead, and came down onto the stage, where he was attached to two wires. As the spacecraft took off, he was gently lifted up, while the other actors peered upwards as if watching the rocket disappearing into the sky. The stage was darkened, small blue lights shone out all across the back wall and the sweep of metal, and when the rest of the cast left the stage, there was Yuri, swinging around in space, telling us all how beautiful it looked. It was a fairly effective piece of staging, though rather spoilt by cast members coming on once or twice to set Yuri spinning – this was when he was making his re-entry.
His landing in a country field was well done, though, with two women working in the field and being understandably suspicious of a strange chap parachuting in. Gagarin’s keen to take them, and some other farm workers who turn up, for a drink before the official welcoming party arrive, but he’s too late, and the officials whisk him away to see Comrade Khrushchev as quick as you like.
I have no idea what the scene with Khrushchev and Gagarin waving to the crowds from the balcony was intended to give us. With those two at the back of the stage, we were left with Mrs Gagarin and Korolyov having a conversation, and I found a good deal of this dialogue incomprehensible due to Samantha Young’s delivery. I did get that she thought their reception was an honour, and that she was shy, but not much else.
After the interval, we had another speech from the platform, this time by Khrushchev. I nodded off for a bit during the next scene, but I gathered that it covered Korolyov’s remarriage, a major disaster with long-range missile testing, the Soviet side of the Cuban missile crisis, and the increasing rivalry between Korolyov and Glushko. With mounting pressure to beat the Americans, deadlines become ever tighter, and finally Korolyov is facing a crunch moment. Brezhnev, now in charge, arrives to sack him and put Glushko in charge. The evidence mounts against Korolyov – his ill-health, dubious decisions, etc. – until finally he makes Brezhnev a guarantee that he will have his Soyuz rocket ready to launch in eighteen months. With this chance to regain the competitive lead over the US, Brezhnev leaves Korolyov in charge, and now things get even tougher for his team.
We’ve seen him before being ruthless and tyrannical, insulting people and driving them to do their best, then being best buddies with them when things are going well. Now he’s much worse, even using the idea put forward by Geladze earlier that they can get by with only six hours sleep in every forty-eight. Some clamps are discovered to be defective, but with such tight deadlines and a limited budget, there’s no opportunity to change them. As a result, the cosmonaut’s capsule fails to re-enter properly, and he’s blown up. This was another use of the wires, with much more spinning this time, and although I experienced the emotional effect of knowing this chap won’t survive, I didn’t feel this staging worked as well as the first time.
Just before this, Korolyov was sent to Moscow for surgery, and in the final scene, we learn that he died during the operation due to problems caused by the beating he took way back in the gulag. The doctor has defected to America, and this scene is part of her debriefing. She’s still obsessed about getting an apartment, and there’s some humour in the US airman’s comment “everyone gets an apartment”. After the airman leaves, Korolyov’s ghost appears, and the final lines are a question from the doctor about the meaning of Korolyov’s achievements.
It was an OK ending, but I still feel the play hasn’t quite come into focus yet. There’s the historical stuff, of course, and that story’s pretty well told, but the use of ghosts was a bit clunky at times, and there’s too much done with Gagarin’s character in the middle section which takes the attention away from Korolyov needlessly, I feel. I’d prefer to see the first scene cut, with the information conveyed during later scenes, which would give us more personal time with these characters as well, but then I’m not a dramatist, just an enthusiastic observer.
Decent performances all round. Greg Hicks was excellent as Geladze, doubled with Old Man, while Brian Doherty as Khrushchev and Phillip Edgerley as Brezhnev gave nice little cameos. Noma Dumezweni was perfection, as usual.
© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me