The Theatreguide.London Review
Russian In The Woods
Peter Whelan's new play for the Royal Shakespeare Company tells a story at least as old as Henry James. It's a powerful story, well worth the retelling, especially with Whelan's specifically 20th-century geopolitical slant. But the play itself is a little too flaccid and overwritten to be fully successful.
Whelan's subject is the innocent abroad, finding himself in a world of such sophistication and experience that naivete is morally criminal and must be destroyed or even punished.
In a role more traditionally written as American, Pat Harford is a young British soldier in postwar Berlin, the divided city beginning its existence as an island in Soviet-dominated East Germany. Posted there in the essentially non-military job of instructor, he will learn far more than he teaches.
From the start, Pat discovers that everyone around him is living on a more intense level than he can understand, so that everything from a tennis game to a flirtation with a civilian secretary seems charged with hidden meanings and values he can only vaguely sense.
Gradually he learns that everyone else either lived through horrors of the war or understands the implications of the Cold War in ways that are beyond his understanding, and eventually the plot takes a twist that makes evident how dangerously out of his depth he has been from the start.
As I said, it is a strong story, and though the play was written more than a year ago, it has particular resonances for a post-September 11 world. But Whelan's play doesn't do full justice to his own subject, and you sense the strength of what he wanted to do more than what he actually achieves.
For a play about the discovery of the world's complexities, it seems too thin and underdeveloped, giving the impression of a slender story stretched over too long an evening. Where James, for example, could devote most of a long novel to colouring in the shadings and complexities of the world around his innocents, Whelan settles for overfamiliar and ineffective shorthand, like the secretary's tales of survival as a civilian in wartime and postwar Berlin.
So, rather than an accumulating sense of a dense reality, we get only the rather thin plot - not much actually happens in the first act, and then a rush of melodramatic events is squeezed into the last half-hour.
The story is narrated in the third person, by someone to whom Pat told it fifty years later. This framing device inevitably distances us from the character, but also contributes to a feel and texture more like a staged short story than an actual play. (Other elements of that feeling include overly literary dialogue and too many self-conscious symbols, like the title figure, representing Pat's distant, unreal vision of the enemy.)
And finally, Pat comes across merely as a pleasant young guy, not as the criminally innocent figure deserving the punishment the play imposes on him, so there isn't the sense of inevitability and poetic justice that the genre demands, just the pointlessly sad story of a guy caught up in games everyone but he knows the rules of.
All these flaws work against Whelan's theme, and make the play more a sketch for the message he wants to convey than the successful embodiment of it. Under Robert Delamere's direction, Anthony Flanagan plays Pat as thoroughly normal, so that the others, with their darker meanings and hidden agendas, seem more out of place than he.
Among the others, Colin Mace as a particularly mysterious soldier and Louis Hilyer as a particularly sympathetic one are most successful in combining believable characterizations with the requisite hints of menace and mystery.
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Review - A Russian in the Woods - RSC Pit 2002