Review – Remembrance Day – Royal Court

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The Royal Court stands top in my rankings of London theaters, as the place where one can just go ahead and buy a ticket to whatever show they’re doing and not really worry too much about whether or not one is going to have a good night at the theater. Of course, I’m prejudiced a bit by my love of new plays; but Royal Court shines because they have, in addition to a commitment to new works, a really good vetting process; so while the National produces lots of new shows, their success ratio is low (and they offend me by their heavy hand with their production values); and the Donmar goes for excellence but has lost most of its experimentalism. So when I saw that a show was coming up for which I had room in the schedule (and room in the budget), I went ahead and bought tickets for
Remembrance Day without more than glancing at the synopsis.

It’s a new play, though, so I’ll assume you may want to know a bit about it: like many of my favorite plays, it’s a family drama, about a conflict across generations (in this case between a father, Sasha – Michael Nardone – and his daughter, Anya – Ruby Bentall). The conflict is set in a highly political and very specific context – that of the Russians (this family) still living in modern Latvia – but the seems in no way bound much by time or place a la The Crucible and The Rhinoceros. Fascism, nationalism, political extremism and manipulation, families being fractured as the members become partisans … these topics are sadly universal and make the play greatly enjoyable even if you’re completely ignorant about Latvia.

In this storm of emotion and rhetoric we have some richly drawn characters that speak well to Aleksey Scherbak’s authorial skills, with the kind of details that take what could have been cartoons and make them into believable people. Old soldier Paulis (Sam Kelly) has a bad temper but a strong affection for sausage; his fellow fighter Valdis (Ewan Hooper) can look on both his service to three different armies and his wrongful stint in the gulag (seven years!) with the distance age brings. Sasha starts out being gruff but reveals much stronger depths than needed; even his son “gimme some money” Lyosha (Iwan Rheon) has got is game going on. Glowering over all of them is the intensely burning brand that is Anya, who starts sweet and doe-eyed, hanging out with the adorable leader of the youth wing of the Russian political party, then slowly … well, changes. It’s the kind of evolution you can see many people making around the world while the cameras aren’t, completely believable, and … well, there was no hiding from the fact that this play wasn’t just specific to the problem that one small country is having right now.

The directing and acting are quite good. Bentall is occasionally just a little bit too fanatical for me, especially when she’s just staring at someone and not talking … it interrupted her believability. The political hacks (Luke Norris and Nick Court) spew out butter and bile with equal enthusiasm; I feel they weren’t meant to be entirely believable, more representatives of a certain mindset. Meanwhile, the old men made glaring the hamfisted acting of When We Are Married, showing what fine old actors can really do on stage: sparking as opposites on the ideological spectrum but also making it clear what held them together as friends. And Nardone eventually outshines the daughter as he believably struggles with extreme changes within his family, giving a performance that made me forget I was watching someone act. Meanwhile, director Michael Longhurst, if I’m reading the script correctly, has made a powerful point by interleaving Valdis’ and Sasha’s family’s apartments. They may be separate on paper, but in reality, these people who are spending so much time defining how different they are from each other have become completely intertwined in each other’s lives, and separating them seems no more possibly than removing one half of a human heart without killing the patient.

All of this intense emotion took place in about eighty-five minutes and has left me thinking about what happened for the past few days. The plot details may be irrelevant (and I’m not wanting to tell too much about it), but there is no doubt that as a portrait of how people move toward political extremism, this play is very powerful, and I suspect will be getting produced regularly after its debut wraps.

(This review is for a production that took place on Tuesday, April 5th, 2011. It continues through April 16th.)

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