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The Drunks and The Grain Store (The Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon)
October 25, 2009 14:08

It is a case of east meets west as the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of The Drunks at the Courtyard theatre kicks off its four year celebration of theatre from the eastern bloc, giving us a sneak peek of life beyond the iron curtain.

Co-authored by Mikhail and Vyacheslav Durnenkov, The Drunks follows the tale of a shell-shocked soldier returning home from fighting in Chechnya who unwittingly becomes a wager in a political game between the Mayor, the Chief of Police and a newspaper editor.

Throughout the course of the two hour play we are taken on a well-heeled journey of the new Russia, which much like the old one is saturated in corruption, anarchy, poverty and vodka. Still the tour is a pleasant one with Antony Neilson’s production combined with Tom Pipers design making it a colourful spectacle.

The protagonist, stony faced Ilya played by Jonjo O’Neill re! turns home to find the world he left behind has changed in his absence.. This dramatic shift leaves Ilya confused and disillusioned as his wife has another man, his son thinks he is dead and his former schoolmate Kostya has become a rather attractive transsexual. There is a common theme in the play; the women are presented as one-dimensional. They are either drunk, sexual objects or weak. However this should not be misconstrued as an example of misogyny on the part of the Durnenkov brothers, instead the flawlessness of the women help perfectly illustrate the desperation of the men. They too are broken and yearning and are a product of a fraught and corrupt society.

The play does have its fair share of absurdities; transsexuals pretending to be dinosaurs and Police chiefs with a penchant for sharp weapons and gimps sit pretty amongst the grey coats, copious consumption of vodka and the fingerless woolly gloves of post-Soviet Russia. It is this which redeems The Drunks. Much of the comedy is provided by moments such as these includi! ng a hilarious Eastern rendition of The B52s ‘Love Shack’ and a enactment of the lift scene made famous by Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey in Dirty Dancing.

For this reason the play fits more suitably within the brackets of a raucous, satirical comedy rather than that of the hard political drama usually synonymous with Russian theatre.

 If only the same could be said about the RSC’s production of Natal’ia Vorozhbit’s The Grain Store, the miniute Kathryn Hunter appears swinging above the audience announcing her pleas to God it is clear The Grain Store will not like The Drunks provide dark comedy but instead be a weighty lament on a country savaged by Stalinism. It begins in the early 1930s depicting life on a collectivised Ukrainain farm re-telling how Stalin’s attack on the Kulaks led to hunger, disease and death as a result of brutal famine.

Naturally the play is long and intense. Amongst the starvation is a something of a love-story between Morkina, a! comfortable Kulaks daughter and Arsei, the peasant being trained as a party activist who attempts to woo the emaciated Morkina by secretly feeding her scraps of bread. Tunji Kasim and Samantha Young provide strong performances as the young lovers in this torturous romance.

Directed by RSC artistic director Michael Boyd the play lacks narrative clarity and the structure is fragmented. In begins with a promising start but this is diminished by the second act. Any play about political suppression will hardly be light affair so for this very reason Boyd gets it right as it is dark, solemn and repetitive; faultlessly reflecting that of a totalitarian state. The Grain Store is perfectly useful as a piece which provides a voice to those who suffered under Stalin’s progressive policies.

By Allison Mulimba.


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