The Theatreguide.London Review
Trafalgar Studios Autumn 2012
When Alexsei Arbuzov first wrote ‘The Promise’ in the 1960s, it was deeply controversial: Arbuzov had dared to portray the horrors of the Siege of Leningrad, still taboo in Russia for decades after the end of the Second World War. Perhaps to soften the blow, the atrocities of war were combined here with that most tried-and-true of formulas: the love triangle.
Penelope Skinner’s new version of the Russian-language original is necessarily less shocking to a modern audience, but the extent of the tragedy, in which almost a million people lost their lives, still has the power to startle and appal.
In the winter of 1942, Marat returns to the apartment he shared with his family to find it occupied by Lika, a young girl from across the street who has been squatting there ever since her own block was destroyed by the bombing.
Marat has nowhere else to go; neither does she. Together, they build a kind of home that is a safe-haven from the world outside – until Leonidik arrives, disrupting their delicate equilibrium, and the four walls begin to become more of a prison than a sanctuary.
In spite of three generally excellent performances, ‘The Promise’ struggles to overcome its greatest flaw, which is that the two halves of its narrative – the love lives of its three characters and the horrors of war – seem to be divided quite unequally into each of the play’s two halves.
The first half is consumed with the quiet, confused longing of first love; its evocation of the suffering of civilians in this neglected atrocity is extremely well-done, but it is the emotional, romantic core of the story which seems most developed here. As anyone who has been through puberty will know, teenagers can be hormonal and jealous and over-emotional even without being half-insane with hunger, and the intensity of emotion built up in this first act is really remarkable.
After the interval we skip forward some years to the aftermath of Leningrad – and suddenly the love story pales in comparison to the lasting psychological and physical damage that has been done to the protagonists. Tortured by survivors’ guilt, they pace around each other, getting older and impossibly older, and the real-life tragedy against which the play is set casts such a great shadow over everything as to make the romance seem insignificant.
What is more, the huge gap in playing ages required from the actors is just too great an ask. Both Gwilym Lee and Max Bennett look far too old in the first half, but shine in the second; Joanna Vanderham, meanwhile, charming and funny and believable as child-adult Lika in the first half, looks simply too young in the second for you to believe in the years of silent suffering she has endured. This robs some moments of their emotional weight, in spite of the cast’s best efforts.
If this had been a one-act play comprised entirely of the first half, one would certainly leave unsatisfied, but in the best of ways – the way that longs for more, for answers, for another glimpse into these characters’ lives. As it is, the production as a whole is damaged by an over-long second act, comprised of too many short scenes, with the cast struggling to build tension against a tide of scene changes and over-brief exchanges. The ending, when it comes, is satisfying in a way – but far too neat.
See it for the performances, the direction, the wonderful design and for some shocking moments that will stay with you for days – but don’t expect the second half to live up to the promise of the first.