The Theatreguide.London Review
Royal Shakespeare Company at Hampstead Theatre Spring 2011
RSC's brief season of new plays opens with Rona Munro's docudrama,
which tells the story of the all-but-unknown Sergei Pavlovich
Korolyov, the engineer who almost single-handedly designed and pushed
through the Soviet space program, from Sputnik through Gagarin and
It makes for a fascinating dramatised history lesson, but whether there's an actual play here is less certain.
Plucked from a gulag prison camp after running afoul of one of Stalin's periodic purges, Korolyov was paroled to help build long-range missiles, but he managed to charm Khrushchev into diverting the project from armaments to space travel. (One result, if Munro's facts are correct, is that the USSR had far, far fewer intercontinental missiles than the USA always believed.)
Korolyov ran afoul of the more sceptical Brezhnev just as the Americans were catching up in the space race, and the engineer died in even greater obscurity than that in which he had lived.
All this is fascinating, and Munro tells the story well. Her attempt to flesh it out into real drama is built mainly on imagining a personality for Korolyov, but she doesn't really get much further than making him a single-minded and demanding workaholic.
Munro invents two characters, a female doctor who knew Korolyov in the gulag and improbably reappears as the cosmonauts' medical director, and the ghost of a fellow gulag prisoner.
Both serve in a way as the engineer's conscience, the one reminding him of the human costs of his obsession, the other reinforcing his commitment to it. But since Munro's Korolyov never wavers or is particularly affected by either of them, they don't actually have much real dramatic function or tell us much about him.
Darrell D'Silva effectively captures the man's complete dedication and self-confidence, allowing the suggestion that there is something darker or neurotic in his inability to stop working. Noma Dumezweni provides a sharp-edged scepticism as the doctor, and Greg Hicks brings his formidable presence and authority to the double roles of the ghost and a suspicious military overseer.
Dyfan Dwyfor makes a charmingly boyish Yuri Gagarin, John Mackay has strong moments as a jealous competing engineer, and Brian Doherty steals his scenes as a half-comic Khrushchev.
Director Roxana Silbert keeps things flowing smoothly, though she can't fully disguise the sense that there's more docu- than -drama here.
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