“On Wednesday October 23, 2002, at 9.05pm, 42 Chechens attacked a theatre in Moscow. They interrupted a performance of the musical ‘Nord-Ost’ and took the entire audience hostage.”
Entering the North Wall auditorium early, I am hit by the tension. Unsmiling actors all around look on and the stage is empty but for a simple arrangement of large white plastic boxes of different sizes, its floor covered in something like ash. Lights are low and smokiness hangs in the air. I am silently handed a folded piece of paper, on which is written the above true statement, and left to contemplate until the show begins.
And what a show. Fraught and harrowing from the moment it begins until the lights go up and we try to leave, avoiding each others’ looks of horror, Nordost follows three women involved in what was dubbed the “Moscow theatre hostage crisis”. Zura (Ellie Turner) is a young woman whose husband, a Chechen rebel, was murdered by a Russian. With nowhere to go, she is taken in by a group of Islamist rebels, training to become a Black Widow – a suicide bomber. Tamara (Emily Bowker) is a Latvian-born paramedic, having come to Russia to be with her husband. After he returned from fighting in Chechnya, her husband had changed and did not recognise her, committing suicide soon after. Olga (Nia Davies) is a wife, a mother, a Muscovite who has saved up for many months to buy tickets to take her family to see the musical Nord-Ost. They tell their stories, each in turn recounting how they came to be at the theatre that night and during the ensuing days.
The star of this show is Torsten Buchsteiner’s script, translated by David Tushingham. It is taut, direct, and mesmerising. It has details that bring us into the lives of each woman, it asks us questions about what we would do in a similar situation. The narratives are arranged in such a way that we are close to Zura, the suicide bomber, first, irrevocably on her side before we have the chance to judge and shun her. As we draw closer in each of the women’s narratives, approaching the moment in time where their worlds collide, the suspense mounts and we dart from one to the next, measuring time by the minute.
The three actors are engaging and utterly convincing. Barely interacting, they speak directly to the audience, communicating intimately with us. Every word they utter, every turn of phrase betrays their emotions and their attitudes to the memories and histories they tell. We get to know the characters very well during the 100 minutes – what they love, what they fear, how they react under pressure, why they made the decisions that brought them to the theatre in Moscow and exactly what happened next. We are right there with them in this compelling portrayal of civilian helplessness in the face of terrorism and brutal political power, of female terror and fierceness at the loss of those she loves, of grief, revenge and the instinct to survive.
Complementing the actors are a great silent chorus provided by students of drama from St Edward’s School, Oxford. They have spent several potentially life-changing days working with a practitioner from Salisbury Playhouse, the director and the cast. They add movement and density to the performance, offering welcome moments for reflection.
This is an elegantly staged, desperately sad and memorable performance in which the protagonists had already lost before the show even began. It doesn’t offer hope or judgement, forcing us to consider all angles of this horrifying and ultimately tragic situation in which terrorists, civilians, politicians and servicemen and women all played a part.