Theatre review: Describe The Night at Hampstead Theatre
PUBLISHED: 17:32 14 May 2018 | UPDATED: 17:32 14 May 2018
A timely but over ambitious look at the struggle to remain truthful in Communist Russia
DESCRIBE THE NIGHT
Writers are having a hard time of it in North London theatres at the moment. After the Almeida’s troubled fictitious playwright in The Writer, we now have an elaborately spun revisionist history play by Rajiv Joseph at Hampstead, depicting the Russian Jewish writer Isaac Babel as he struggles to remain truthful in his storytelling under a Communist regime.
Joseph repeatedly foregrounds the play’s main theme of truth and the meaning of language in exchanges that would give Derrida a headache.
Wildly ambitious story strands chop and change as Joseph builds in some historical facts and invents others. The play starts in 1920 when Babel [in a fictional touch] meets young Nikolai Yezhov, a literal-minded KGB henchman in the making, near a battlefield in Poland. A close friendship with a homoerotic subtext is imagined spanning 90 years, stymied by Babel’s affair with Yezhov’s wife, Yevgenia [fact], and culminating in Babel’s execution at Yezhov’s hands [fiction] who personally burns many of his unpublished stories as part of Stalin’s purges against dissident writers [fact/ fiction - who knows?]. There are also two subplots: Babel’s diary in which he describes the night he met Yezhov is found in Smolensk in 2010 after a plane crashes killing many of the Polish government; and Babel’s imagined granddaughter meets rising KGB star Vova – a thug with clear parallels to Putin [Steve John Shepherd, think David Bowie in the Let’s Dance years] – before she defects to the West.
Like the qureshi leech soup that Yevgenia serves to Vova that catalyses visions, the tonal mix of the play is heady and hard to take. Despite the challenge of integrating the mystical elements, director Lisa Spirling makes this a feature through subtle movement sequences. Rebecca O’ Mara is luminous as psychic Yevgenia and Ben Caplan’s Babel is tenderly portrayed.
This is heavily imagist, multiple-stranded theatre in the vein of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America but without the deft touch. The handle on an individual’s dogged investment in ideology – socialism or thinly veiled capitalist thuggery? - cries out for more specificity but the questions raised are timely.