The first production in the latest Donmar Trafalgar showcase of young directors’ work is a cracker: a revival by Alex Sims of Aleksei Arbuzov’s 1965 Russian play about the hellish siege of Leningrad. Formally, the play shows its age: it’s clunkily structured and one character is forever flouncing out of the door or striding back through it, to the point where the audience can set their watches by his next entrance. But Alex Sims’ fine, vividly acted production overcomes this to draw out the heartfelt pain in the drama: the crippling effect of survivor guilt and the nagging – and daring – question of whether the sacrifices made were worth it.
Sims and designer Mike Britton turn the intimate studio space into the cramped Leningrad apartment in which the whole play unfolds. We begin in the winter of 1941-42, the freezing nadir of the siege during which 100,000 people a month died, many from starvation, and citizens became accustomed to stepping over bodies in the street. Wisely, rather than show this – or the changes to the country over subsequent decades – Arbuzov keeps his focus tight, restricted to this one room and three characters. So we experience the horrors of the siege through the eyes of three teenagers sheltering in the barren room: Lika (Joanna Vanderham), Marat (Max Bennett) and Leonidik (Gwilym Lee). Normal teenage emotions mingle with much more desperate feelings: with the daily terror of death, with raging hunger, biting cold and gradual desensitisation to the dead. It’s through tiny details that Arbuzov conveys the agony of the experience: the eking out of a precious can of condensed milk one teaspoon at a time; the burning of family photos for warmth. He doesn’t touch on cannibalism, but Lika does confess to eating a cat.
Belief in a brighter future helps them to survive, but when Arbuzov revisits them in 1946, and then again in 1959, they are all deeply damaged. The room becomes a metaphor for the security of an ideology, both a refuge and a prison, as Lika and Leonidik cling to the space while Marat roves restlessly.
Penelope Skinner provides a lively new English version, though the dialogue still jars at times (and anachronisms such as “hi guys” sound odd). The three performances are riveting, however, pushing past the play’s streak of soap opera to its dark and creeping disillusionment, and playing the apparently neat ending with a question mark.