Brighton Fringe 2015
S P O I L E R A L E R T
This review probably contains spoilers. If this is a problem, please stop reading NOW. You can see my policy at www.stratmastoris.wordpress.com/spoilers
‘They fuck you up, your Mum and Dad,
They do not mean to, but they do’
Philip Larkin. ‘This Be The Verse’
I wondered why she was wearing what looked like a child’s sandals – tan ones, with little white socks. She’d walked on to the stage at The Rialto clutching a grey suitcase and wearing a long overcoat with a belt and a black fur collar, the material almost a houndstooth pattern but rather fussier – warm-looking. Dark brown hair tightly pulled back into a small braided bun at the back. And those rather incongruous sandals.
She’s Joseph Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana. I knew that she’d made a spectacular defection from Russia to the West in 1967, at the height of the Cold War, and that she’d written a book, ‘Twenty Letters to a Friend’, which denounced the Soviet system, and . . . that was about it. Probably the same amount as you.
I hadn’t known that she’d spent time in England, in Bristol – and yet here she was in a taxi from the airport, heading for Clifton. ‘Cliff – Tun’ she pronounced it to the cabbie. It’s a one-woman show, remember, so she does all the parts. Finally, she got out by the Suspension Bridge, and told us that Laika (her daughter?) sat for a moment on the pavement, smiling.
She’d organised herself a small flat, though it sounded more like a rather seedy bedsit – we had to imagine the room for ourselves as the only stage setting was a padded red chair and a small shelf unit. After the landlord left, and Laika threw herself on to the bed, she took off her overcoat. She was wearing a pale beige linen dress, very simple, knee-length with short sleeves and buttons down the front. It looked somehow … childlike, and together with the sandals it seemed odd on a grown woman.
The landlord had simply wanted the rent money, he wasn’t bothered about references, and Svetlana told us how it felt to have – "No name. No number. No previous address. It’s wonderful!". A little earlier she had talked about – "remembering the dancing, and remembering that I’m not supposed to remember".
Kirsty Cox must be in her thirties, though she’d looked older when we first saw her as Svetlana in her overcoat. Now, in the linen dress, she looked younger and curiously doll-like. Not small, obviously, but as though she was made out of some kind of ceramic. She held her body slightly awkwardly, fingers rather stiff and shoulders held back as she moved her arms to emphasise a point, and her mouth, as she formed her words with very definitive movements of her lips, seemed enormous. But it was her eyes which gripped us. Huge blue-grey eyes, unblinking as they ranged over the audience – boring into me as her gaze passed across me, and then on to my neighbour. Not creepy, but certainly unnerving.
"I remember that I’m not allowed to remember – that I should … remember something I’m allowed to remember. Something safe, because – well, because that must be allowed"
"Tomorrow I’ll make new memories"
It must be around 1990, because she hears about Boris Yeltsin, and the fall of Mikhail Gorbachev. But that would make her over sixty – so who on earth is Laika? A granddaughter? Svetlana’s calling herself Phyllis Richards now, keeping herself very much to herself, but allowing herself to develop a friendship with the local greengrocer, Vince. She’s dazzled by the colours and smells of the rich, ripe fruits in his shop, the peaches and mangos – though they seem to trigger flashbacks of traumatic events in her past.
Vince takes her to a local dance. He’s a working-class Bristol man with an easy wit – "I want to see that famous polka of yours". Coincidence – Vince could have plucked the name of any dance out of the air, but he chose a polka, and that takes Svetlana way back to her childhood, and her father –
"… who towers over me in his grey tunic … and I know I am greatly embarrassing my father. The whole Party will think he can’t control his six-year-old daughter … if I don’t get up now, in my blue dress, and dance for Krushchev and all the other Bolsheviks, who are laughing, with big red noses and drool in their beards, shouting Svet-la-na! … Svet-la-na! … Svet-la-na! …"
The adult Svetlana’s clapping rhythmically as she recounts this. Huge eyes staring at us as her hands come together – Clap! – Clap! – Clap! – again and again. I said earlier that Kirsty Cox’s performance was unnerving, and this was the most unsettling bit of theatre I’ve seen in quite a while.
"… as I look up, and I plead with him to see my mother. His nostrils flare above his moustache and then my scalp is on fire as he drags me by the hair on to the dance floor, and I cry for my mother … who is never coming back"
They fuck you up, your Mum and Dad . . .
Her mother was dead. Svetlana had been told that she died of appendicitis, and it wasn’t until years later that she found an article in the London Illustrated News revealing that her mother had committed suicide. As the play progressed she told us of the terrible cost of being close to Joseph Stalin. Her brother Vasily – a pilot and head of the Moscow Air Force – driven to alcoholism. Her lover Alexei Kapler, a film maker her father disapproved of because he was much older than her and Jewish – sent to a labour camp. And all the other family members whose deaths Stalin arranged – Svetlana’s half-brother, her uncle Pavel, her aunt Anna, her daughter’s husband, her brother Vasily’s son and daughter.
No wonder she left Russia – left her children behind – she’s trying to escape from her past. But of course you never can – childhood casts a very long shadow. She’s tried to forget – to live anonymously in Bristol – as Phyllis Richards, then as Angela Buchner, then as Stephanie Hitchen. But she still gets flashbacks – three children trick-or-treating on Halloween turn into her own children, Josif, Yekaterina and Olga, in a nightmare hallucination. Strangely, though, as the years go by Laika doesn’t seem to age. Who on earth is she?
Towards the end of the play, Svetlana tells little Laika of the horrors of the Five Year Plans, and of the Collectivisation of Agriculture, that turned into such a disaster – "special Plans which meant there wasn’t enough food to go round, and millions of animals and farmers died, and the farmers were sent to labour camps, and a year later, the Gulag was officially created." She told Laika of the cannibalism that followed the famine and starvation. She told her of the dreaded Beria too, the head of Stalin’s secret police.
The play’s writer David Lane has given us a kaleidoscopic image of Svetlana’s life – enough fleeting references to make this reviewer, at least, chase up more detail of her fascinating story on Google and Wikipedia. Kirsty Cox brought the material to life in a very powerful performance. I’ve mentioned her appearance already, but it was her vocal range which was remarkable – warm and rich when she’s one of Svetlana’s Bristol acquaintances, rising in urgency and in tempo as she recounted some particularly dreadful image of life in Stalin’s ‘Mother Russia’.
And Laika? "After my mother died, my father created a secret friend for me, a little girl in a plain beige dress. A model child, who did everything perfectly. How much my father teased me about her. He would draw pictures of her, on a horse, in a boat. Laika – my father’s gift to me"
Svetlana’s father killed millions, he drove her mother to suicide – but he created an imaginary friend so that his daughter wouldn’t be lonely. A kind of ‘daemon’ spirit companion that she’s never lost. Her father was a monster – "but we are nobody without him"
I wondered which one of them we had actually been watching, all along.