The War Has Not Yet Started review at Southwark Playhouse, London – ‘frustratingly abstract’
In this collection of 12 short sketches by Russian playwright Mikhail Durnenkov, we’re left to figure out quite a lot as an audience: the gender of each new character, the relationships, the settings. There’s no context, and no costume changes. Just a bit of rearrangement of furniture – sofa, lamp wardrobe – and a blackout to mark the next scene.
Most of all, we’re left to figure out that each scene of the play, banned in Russia, is probably a metaphor for anti-Russian sentiment, or at least for something that questions an aspect of the Motherland.
So a vigorous accusation by a man that someone was ogling his wife, and the demand of payment, suggests extra-judicial practices by the likes of the Federal Security Service; a peasant father angry that his rich son has built him a house could be a comment on the disparity in wealth between generations. Durnenkov throws propaganda, fake news, and paranoia into the mix.
Of the cast of three, the spry Sarah Hadland finds the most comedy and emotional range in the many characters she plays, and turns all these grand themes into little human interactions, small acts of synecdoche.
One scene that really works is a motivational speech, delivered buoyantly and confidently by Hadland, about giving up smoking that twists into a disturbingly nonchalant story of unexplained disappearances and the way that it becomes normalised.
Unfortunately, for all the complexity, the play feels too much like a university sketch show. It’s constantly trying to be funny but doesn’t always achieve it.
Playing in rep with The Here and This and Now, another, stronger production that also started life at Theatre Royal Plymouth, Durnenkov’s piece has the same feeling of malaise. But, despite fluid, rapid direction from Gordon Anderson and a decent cast, its abstract nature ultimately dilutes the potency of its message.
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