Fortune, chance, life, fate, all tumble and collide in Vasily Grossman’s epic WW2 novel, so hotly suppressed by Russian authorities when first penned in the 1950s that it had to be smuggled out by Grossman to find any life in the wide world. As literature, the writer’s thesis was almost inevitably going to fall foul of the Soviet state – essentially conflating Russian actions during the 1940s with those of the Nazis – brandishing the so-called ‘Glorious Revolutionary War’ only a stone’s throw away from the actions of the Third Reich. Given the significance of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, it’s not hard to see why.
But that’s only the tip of the iceberg of Grossman’s piece, especially when placed live on stage by the legendary Russian Maly Theatre company. Performed in Russian with English surtitles and making its UK premiere in the West End, the show is an interrogation of Russian identity during one of its most pivotal turning points, a study of collusion, of rewriting history and the cruel ironies of wartime conflict.
The production spreads itself over a vast number of different contexts – a heartless Russian Gulag, a Warsaw Ghetto, the Russian Front in Stalingrad, a concentration camp on the Eastern Front and, finally, an apartment in post-Siege Moscow, played out on an unmoving set, context inferred by character. A working knowledge of Soviet history during the 1940s would not go amiss here, it’s probably worth confessing.
But as a critic who (for all their faults) lavished Antony Beevor’s thorough wartime non-fiction books with a lot of attention growing up, avoiding the disorientation of different scenes and spaces flowing into one another paid off – Life and Fate is nothing short of an incredible three hours, a rare treat for the West End.
There’s a lot, in retrospect, to digest. In Moscow, theoretical physicist Viktor Shtrum is being persecuted for his contrary beliefs – criticising the state’s unilateral approach to physics and its derision of theoretical models. It seems like Shtrum is ripe for culling, just as so many academics who spoke out against Stalin were. But, in a stroke of chance, Comrade Stalin sees his potential, pardons him and, in a brief phonecall, tells him the oft repeated line – “I wish you much success in your work”. A pariah and enemy of the state transforms instantly from outcast to scientist celebré. Forget wheels and butterflies, Stalin dictates as he sees fit. And, as Shtrum comes to realise, this ascension to fame comes at a cost.
Shtrum’s rise is juxtaposed with more critical storylines – at the Battle of Stalingrad Colonel Novikov (who is engaged with a romantic affair with Shtrum’s sister-in-law (there’s a lot of tenuous family connections going on here), a keen strategist and tactical powerhouse, delays his tank company’s advance by eight minutes (against express orders), and in the process sweeps to victory, the hero of the day. Not a single tank lost. But instead of a phonecall from Comrade Stalin, Novikov is arrested for subordination and betraying the state.
Only two of a vast array of storylines, Maly weave each onto the stage, with characters wandering into one another’s spaces. It becomes almost trance like, shifting through the war, figures ducking under Alexey Poray-Koshits’ vast metallic set, an artificial partition across the stage. And returning throughout the piece, Shtrum’s Jewish mother, on the cusp of execution by the Nazis in Ukraine for her religious beliefs. A heartbreaking turn from Tatiana Shestakova, a Maly regular, her monologues reflect a latent anti-Semitism in an era where persecution was at its most devastating – and, of course, feels intensely pertinent for contemporary audiences.
Having already picked up the Golden Bear Award when it first premiered, seeing this epic come to London is a gift to theatre enthusiasts (albeit a cursory one, with the show closing next week). Devastating, epic in scale and harrowing, Grossman’s novel is essential consumption for anyone wanting to see the hypocrisies of the state, and the subjectivity of history, laid bare on the stage.