Venue: Hampstead Theatre, Swiss Cottage
Production: Royal Shakespeare Company
Direction: Roxana Silbert
Award winning Scottish playwright Rona Munro’s gripping new play unveils the life of the mastermind behind the Soviet space program, Sergei Pavlovich Korolyov.
He was the man responsible for all the achievements USSR made in space travel during the years of the cold war. This play tells the story of his passionate love for his work in the midst of a regime of extreme socialism. This is the real strength of the play; the author shows with great evocativeness the growing conflict of the great visionary with the military and political machine.
The play follows the life of the genius well, right from his term in the gulag, to his rise as the Chief Designer as he is called during his tenure at the space program. It also hints not so subtly at the dynamics of the soviet politics, particularly with the characters of the rather pugnacious Khrushchev and the austere Brezhnev. Korolyov’s masterful exploitation of the political ambitions of the pair to advance his ambitions by dangling the bait of intercontinental missiles is a stroke of pure genius by the director.
It packs in the emotions of the man torn between his family and his work, his concern for the safety of his pilots battling with his need for scientific greatness.
The play belongs to the very impressive Darrell D’Silva who injects his Korolyov with the right mixture of brutish arrogance and patriarchal concern for the pilots he dubbed his “little eagles”. He is amply aided by the charming Dyfan Dwyfor as the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin. The audience looked as convinced as him, while he regaled with enthusiasm, the beauty of earth from the space. Noma Dumezweni, gives a brilliant performance as a doctor numbed by the cruelties of the extreme regime in USSR. Her constant whining about the apartment that was promised her, is phenomenal.
But the play falls short of finesse and the second half is tedious at best. One knows the outcome at the end of the first act and the rest is just an assault on ones overwrought senses, with the extremely verbose dialogues. Also the set is confusing. The contraption that doubles up as a screen and the missile does little to enhance the experience. The space sequences with actors suspended on wires are disappointingly low-tech.
Also confusing is the fact that several actors have multiple roles. This harms the flow of the narrative as the audience is often confused as to who the actors are. The fact that the actors speak with such a pronounced mix of very obviously British accents also harms the authenticity of the play. During no time in the course of the play does it seem like the actors are in Russia. The subject that Runa Munroe and director Roxana Silbert attempt with this play is packed with the subtleties of a time packed with political dissent and extreme actions. The characters come alive in honest performances. There was however something very amateur about the play , especially since the lead actors, Darrell D’Silva as Korolyov, and Noma Dumezweni as the doctor, made barely perceptible mistakes during the second act. However in totality, it is good watch. Entertaining and intriguing.