Edinburgh Fringe 2022
In the depths of the Arctic Circle, Sasha longs for the glory days of communism, while Slava is seeking escape. Two characters wrestle with the collapse of their nation in Jack MacGregor’s atmospheric thriller.
In 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed. Eight years later Slava, a young disillusioned woman, arrives on Svalbard to take up her post as a guard at Pyramiden, an abandoned Soviet village. Once a model for a communist utopia, the ghost town provides a haunting canvas for MacGregor’s exploration of how nostalgia, austerity, and the legacy of authoritarianism has paved the way for the Russia we know today. Ali Maclaurin’s stark set hints at an even starker world outside, where dangers lurk in the snow.
The USSR’s legacy looms over the piece in the form of a Soviet expressionist painting of the tundra that hangs crookedly at the back of the stage, dominating the space. Matthew Zajac’s gruff communist loyalist Sasha, who is by turns menacing and charming, stalks amongst the spartan furniture, mourning the loss of his country and the promise of what Pyramiden could have been. Slava’s own memories of home are less positive and Rebecca Wilkie’s nimble performance captures her frustrations and tentative hopes for the future. I won’t give too much away about the plot, but theirs is a complex relationship, and this thriller will certainly keep you guessing.
Of course, memory is a form of storytelling, and in a post-truth world stories can be slippery things. MacGregor, who both wrote and directed the play, does not allow us to forget this, as he exposes the mechanics of making theatre, allowing us to see the actors waiting for their cues at the side of the stage or collecting props and costume. The actors also address us directly, in meta-theatrical asides that disrupt and question the main action. Even this story, he seems to say, can be manipulated.
MacGregor first penned Nightlands in 2020, and the play has only grown in relevance since then. With the current war in Ukraine just the latest attempt by Russia to regain its former power, this feels particularly prescient. A great deal of research has clearly gone into Nightlands, creating a richly informative play, although occasionally this does lead the dialogue to feel more like a history lesson. Still, the questions it presents are complex and knotty, providing plenty of food for thought long after the show had ended.