Brighton Fringe 2017
‘The Writers’ Bloc’ is a play which sets the creativity of the individual artist against the needs of The State and of the masses of citizens who constitute society. It’s a play which takes a hard look at those who consider themselves an ‘elite’. It’s a play about ‘populist’ politics, where powerful groups claim to speak for ‘the majority of the people’. It could be the perfect play for the political climate of Brexit and Trump.
It could be – but it’s actually set in Soviet Russia, in 1937. There’s a sense of war building in the air, and Stalin needs a great masterpiece of literature about The Party. A book to put on every desk, in every hotel room, to inspire every Soviet citizen. As the Minister responsible says – “We want a story to make people proud to live now, to live here, under this Party’s unerring and unyielding protection”.
To achieve this, he summons five prominent Russian writers to an unnamed location and gives them their brief. They must put classics like Tolstoy behind them – they are to collaborate on creating the great Soviet novel. He also makes clear that they do not have any choice in the matter. He’s assembled Mikhail Bulgakov, Osip Mandelstam, Vera Panova, Boris Pasternak and Yevgeny Zamyatin. They are all well-known literary figures, and except for Vera Panova they have all been censored or had their works banned. Mandelstam has just returned from exile to the Urals.
Banned, but they have enormous talent, which is why they’ve been chosen for this important project. The problems, though, become apparent from the start, where we see Zamyatin at his desk at home, quoting from his own work – “True literature can only exist when it is created, not by diligent and reliable officials, but by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels and sceptics”
Hmm. Hardly the attitude conducive to producing uplifting literature on demand. And then, of course, writers have outsized egos and personalities. Within the group there are clashes about the relative importance of novels or poetry, personal feuds (Mandelstam blames Pasternak for the betrayal which led to his recent exile), while each writer has a different vision of how the project should proceed – and all the time the clock is ticking, with The Minister frequently checking on their progress. He’s scathing about them – “What right do they have to think themselves better, or more enlightened, or more intelligent than the next? Their art will never be as important as the work of the masses”
Writer Luke Ofield has cleverly set most the action in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the room where the five writers are working. He’s also written a pair of guards, who move the action along by hauling individual writers off for interrogation, or intervening to break up arguments in the room. They act as a kind of Greek Chorus, too, commenting on the situation from their own perspective. They are diligent working-class Comrades, and they certainly see the writers as a privileged elite. There’s famine in the Urals, and yet the writers are being plied with vodka and scarce cigarettes – “These writers are so far away from the famine” … “How can you focus on art and meaning when you’re wondering where your next meal is coming from”.
The writers are aware of the irony of this – “There are people starving and dying in the Urals – and they are paying us to write a book”. And to be fair to them, they didn’t ask to be in their present situation. They are working on something they don’t believe in, but the alternative is much worse …
“If we are no longer creating art, then we are no longer artists”
“Then who are we?”
“We are alive”
‘The Writers’ Bloc’ is a real ensemble production. Great performances from all eight actors – not just the writer characters but also the guards, who had far more personality than the average Chorus. If there’s any special mention it should go to Pip O’Neill. She played one of the Guards as well as Zamyatin’s mother, and she is the musical director on the production. She’s also the co-founder (with Luke Ofield) of Unmasked Theatre.
Vigorous direction. The action constantly developed, with characters being hauled off the stage and reappearing, fighting amongst themselves on stage – and having sex.
My only caveat would be – that in a play of ideas, there were rather too many points of view being put forward, at breakneck speed. Plus, an audience would benefit from at least a basic knowledge of Russian writers, It’s very cleverly written, mixing invented situations with quotes from the writers’ own works, but there were times when it felt like watching two Tom Stoppard plays simultaneously.
Not that that is necessarily a criticism …
At the end, of course, political priorities change and the project is terminated. No great Soviet novel. No Minister – “Valery Mezhaulk was shot yesterday”. Finally, no Soviet Union, either. No-one today has heard of Valery Mezhaulk, but we still read the works of Bulgakov, of Mandelstam, of Pasternak and Zamyatin. A few academics even read Panova. So the final victory goes to the creative elite, the writers. We might say that in the end, History was on their side.