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This is a very talky three hander which imagines conversations between three of the most fascinating characters of the 20th century, the great poet Anna Akhmatova, Joseph Stalin and the philosopher Isaiah Berlin yet it never takes fire dramatically.
It cries out for expansion, more characters perhaps and a wider canvas? Instead, of necessity, it is a series of duologues but the cast struggle with inert dialogue, which is odd for play about poetry. Neither is it invested with enough metaphorical resonance to make it fly in some other way. Tonally it is all of one note and director Robin Herford does little to vary the pace or lighten sections which are dramatically turgid.
Set in 1930s Russia, Stalin has summoned Akhmatova to his office annoyed at what he sees as veiled criticism of the Soviet Union in her poems. He’s very wary of her success in a country where, it is important to remember, that poets were always popular national heroes.
Rather than packing her off to the gulag for her ‘crimes’ he does something worse, he imprisons and tortures her son so that she will agree to write the poetry he wants to give credibility to his project. He reminds her that Shostakovich has already yielded by composing the Fifth Symphony for him. She fears that if she relents and ploughs out propaganda for Stalin she will become a traitor to the Mother Russia which she venerates. Who among us would be so noble? The central problem with the play is that the sheer horror of this dilemma hasn’t enough dramatic heft here. It’s as if they are having disagreements at a book club.
Isaiah Berlin visits her from Oxford and offers to help her escape, but she won’t go. He recommends she writes two kinds of poetry – one for Stalin and one for the rest of the world which he could smuggle out. Later on she describes how she partly ended up doing just this. “Write, memorise, burn” was her routine.
Ian Redford is adept at capturing the shades of Stalin – the coarseness, the neediness (he listens to a record of applause at one of his rallies) and the resentment of her privileged background versus his own desperate poverty. Most importantly he captures Stalin’s guile which saw him through so many years being the centre of a cult of personality.
Ben Porter’s Berlin is less effective partly because we don’t get to learn much about him or what drives him to make so many dangerous visits to Soviet Russia. He gets too much plodding exposition here and ends up a mere cipher.
The impeccably researched piece is obviously a labour of love and the writer of this production Olivia Olsen also takes on the lead role. While she has presence and indeed resembles the poet she comes across too much as a martyr/saint rather than a fully flawed human. The horrors of living under such a system tested everyone beyond their limits and it seems facile to present people as either noble or weak in this context. Too much veneration of the nobility of the great writer.