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“Work ennobles man” is one of the slogans on the walls in the prison camp where Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s play is set. It rings like a bitter joke under the circumstances. There is little that is noble on view in Stalin’s gulag, from the cynical necessity underpinning it – as a forced labour camp it has become integral to the country’s output – to the flimsy pretexts for imprisoning offenders, to the desperate strategies for survival among the inmates. The play has the authenticity of experience: drawing on Solzhenitsyn’s eight-year sentence in a prison camp, it offers a vivid, grimly fascinating portrait of gulag life in 1945. It has not been staged in London for 30 years – understandably as it calls for a cast of 50 and reproduction of camp conditions including a working foundry.
Undaunted, director Matthew Dunster has slimmed it down, parcelling the parts round a fine, versatile ensemble of 16 and staging it on Anna Fleischle’s bleak utilitarian set that suggests, rather than depicts, the settings. This works well, keeping the action moving and fitting with the sense of an improvised, self-contained world within the gulag. And this is one of Solzhenitsyn’s interests: the way the camp itself becomes a microcosm, with its own brutal hierarchy, unwritten rules and corruption. Ironically, once Stalin’s paranoid laws have imprisoned people for supposed counter-revolutionary activity, they are plunged into a world in which it is every man for himself.
The play’s title refers to Nemov (Cian Barry), a decent man who is soon abused by a scheming rival (Ben Lee), and Lyuba (Rebecca Oldfield), a pretty woman whose harsh life has left her with no illusions about her assets. They are destined to fall in love but their story is only sketched out amid the complex portrayal of brutal prison life. As a piece of drama, then, it is rather frustrating: it’s episodic and unwieldy, and because it depicts the scope of the camp, there is no time to get close to any of the characters. But Dunster deals well with these drawbacks and draws out the authentic feel of the piece. His Jagged Fence production offers sharply defined portraits from the cast and generates a vivid sense of the dehumanising system where even the camp commandant is terrified of removal to the Arctic if he doesn’t increase productivity.