Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Theatre review: The Love Girl & the Innocent

Don't put your daughter on the stage Mrs. Worthington - at least not the Large stage at Southwark Playhouse, it's not a safe place for actresses. First its debut production got cancelled when its leading lady was injured, now Kathryn Prescott has had to drop out of one of the title roles of The Love Girl & the Innocent due to illness, to be replaced at short notice by Rebecca Oldfield. The Innocent of the title meanwhile is Nemov (Cian Barry,) a Russian soldier newly arrived in a gulag and immediately given a position of responsibility over his work group. It's 1945 and, coming straight from the front, Nemov naïvely believes life in the prison camp will at least adhere to its own rules. He's in for a rude awakening, but finds a kind of freedom in being demoted to the dreaded "general work" and connecting with Oldfield's Lyuba.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's play, which Matthew Dunster directs in his own adaptation, offers up a different kind of Russian theatre than the drawing rooms of Chekhov and his contemporaries. The gulag, where the majority of the prisoners are doing 10-year terms for making purportedly anti-Soviet statements (most of them are pretty unclear on exactly what they're supposed to have said wrong) is of course a hellish place of hard labour and low rations, cold and remote but with the constant threat of being transported somewhere even bleaker and further North.


The surprising revelation though is the way bureaucracy seems to be the biggest hardship of all, with work quotas to be reached, different work teams vying for supplies, and a twisted hierarchy among prisoners where the career thieves and thugs, known as "professionals," enjoy a higher status than the political prisoners because technically their crimes weren't against the state. Even the camp commandant (Rocky Marshall) is being threatened with a more Northerly command if productivity doesn't increase, meaning he's willing to sack Nemov when Khomich (a quietly menacing Ben Lee) promises to starve the other prisoners into harder labour.


But this complex internal politics, as well as the fact that there's over 50 characters being played by 16 actors, makes for a confusing experience and one I felt completely detached from. Oldfield is rather stiff as Lyuba although this could be due to being dropped into the cast at the last minute; it doesn't help though that the titular relationship barely exists until near the end. A secondary relationship that sees Emily Dobbs' steely Granya fall for the disinterested Gai (Stevie Raine) has a bit more life to it but still feels underbaked.


So an oddly flat experience, Solzhenitsyn's play evoking brutally harsh conditions imposed on people for crimes they often don't understand, but without finding an emotional focus. Dunster's production encourages a certain distance, with Anna Fleischle's industrial set (finally finding a new configuration for The Large) complemented by turning the stage directions into Brechtian scene descriptions announced by the cast. But the combination of a cumbersome text and variable performances failed to make me engage.

The Love Girl & the Innocent by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in a version by Matthew Dunster from a translation by Nicholas Bethell is booking until the 2nd of November at Southwark Playhouse's Large Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including interval.

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