The President's Holiday
Hampstead Theatre January-February 2008
Penny Gold's new play is what television calls a docudrama - that is, the reconstruction of real events with imagination and invention filling in the details and characterisations we can't know for sure.
In this case, it's the few days in August 1991 when an attempted coup in the Soviet Union held President Mikhail Gorbachev and his family prisoners in their summer home.
(Quick history lesson: frightened by his planned reforms, a reactionary group in the government held Gorbachev incommunicado, told the world he was dying, and seized control. His resistance, along with the more public opposition of Russian President Boris Yeltsin, called their bluff and they backed down.)
Ironically, within months Yeltsin had eclipsed Gorbachev in power, most Soviet countries declared their independence from Moscow, the USSR was disbanded and - greatest horror of all, even to Gorbachev - Western capitalism and consumerism displaced communism.
We want two things from a docudrama - an easy history lesson, and a dramatically satisfying - if not necessarily 'true' - set of characterisations and ordering of events that helps us believe how and why things might have happened.
The fact that I could give that summary a few sentences back is evidence of Gold's success in the first task, though she has to resort to a lot of clumsy exposition to do it.
(Gorbachev to the security man who has joined the coup: 'You, a senior officer in the KGB, you, head of my security, in charge of my personal safety, you led in a group of conspirators....')
Meanwhile a sense of drama is rather heavy-handedly injected with projected slides of the last Czar and his family being arrested and executed.
It's in the second area that Gold's play particularly disappoints. If the 'What happened' of the story is generally clear, the 'Why' and 'How' are never really developed dramatically.
Her Gorbachev is just a stiff-backed believer that he's right, who hangs in there because there's really nothing else to do. The other characters are all equally one-dimensional - his wife Raisa is supportive, the KGB man is self-righteous, his daughter is weak, his son-in-law runs in and out every once in a while reporting what the BBC is saying on their hidden radio.
We come away from the play no more clear about who Gorbachev really was (or might have been) and what it was in him that got him through the crisis. And, with everyone pretty much steadfast pretty much all the way through, there's no real drama here.
Director Patrick Sandford has not found his way past the script's limitations, and the actors, led by Julian Glover as Gorbachev, Isla Blair as Raisa and Robert Demeger as the security man, all appear equally stiff and uncomfortable, as if aware that they have not found any characters to play and are merely reciting lines.
It is possible that their performances will grow and deepen as the run progresses, but if they do it will be a triumph of the actors over the very little the playwright has given them to work with.
Come to the play for the easy history lesson, though you won't get very much more than I gave you in that summary above.
Receive alerts every time we post a new review
Review of The President's Holiday - Hampstead Theatre 2008