Elena Gremina’s documentary play tells the story – through a combination of interviews, diary entries and letters – of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who accused Russian Interior Ministry officials of embezzling 230 million dollars from the government in the form of a fraudulent tax refund. After making the accusation, Magnitsky was himself arrested on suspicion of tax evasion and held without trial for almost a year, at the end of which he was transferred to a different prison and there he died in custody. One hour and eighteen minutes is the period of time that civilian doctors were denied access to him in his cell.
The play presents very forcibly the point of view that Magnitsky was murdered and that what followed was a cover up by the government. While there is necessarily a lot of testimony and direct audience address in the style of verbatim theatre, this is mixed up with some lovely theatrical moments in both writing and direction, such as Alan Francis’s self-censoring throughout a speech about a Russian minister or Rebecca Peyton as Magnitsky’s wife embarking on a Kafkaesque search for her husband through various windows being opened in bookshelves in Takis’s clever set. Indeed there’s an overall confidence and polish to the production that is a cut above the standard fringe fare.
It is important to acknowledge the significance of this play in its original context. It was first produced in 2010 at Teatr.doc in Moscow, which Gremina also co-founded. This was less than a year after Magnistky’s death. It was also significantly, according to the programme, the first political play since 1991 not to use changed identities or allegory but to “name names”. Every performance was followed by a discussion with the audience about the state of Russia and what they needs to be done about it.
This is of particular importance in a country with few open forums for discussions of this kind. Since the original production, several more witnesses approached the playwright volunteering to provide additional testimony and these have been included in this new version. This is almost open source verbatim theatre and a real example of the power of theatre as a forum for collective political action. The play, in its updated form, is having another production in Russia to coincide with its British premiere.
Presenting a play in a different country however, translated into a different language, changes the context and, for a play as wedded to its context as this, also changed the gesture. The UK is certainly a far warmer climate for those who wish to discuss the abuses of Putin’s regime on democracy and human rights. In fact, you might be harder pressed to find people willing to stick up for the Russian government and, as in the USA, this is a bipartisan phenomenon. There the House of Representatives has just passed what is now known as the Magnitsky Act in conjunction with the repeal of Cold War-era Jackson-Vanik amendment freeing up trade between the USA and Russia. According to this, those individuals believed to be involved in Magnitsky’s death will be refused visas to the US and could have their assets frozen. Conservative MP Dominic Raab is seeking a British equivalent of this.
What is a brave political gesture and forum for political debate in Moscow therefore becomes very much part of the received wisdom in the West. Indeed there is such unanimous condemnation of what happened to Magnitsky that the US government is willing to penalise the individuals believed to be involved, essentially disregarding the presumption of innocence. The play’s gesture therefore becomes one of reinforcement and affirmation rather than one of opening up a discussion.
There is one moment where the play suddenly and slightly incongruously acknowledges the cultural and political chasm across which it is communicating, when a character describes Magnitsky as being the kind of schoolboy who would let the other students copy from him before explaining that it’s something everyone does in Russia and it’s just considered normal. For that moment, the London audience is jolted into acknowledging the gap between our own lives and those of the characters being presented on stage. Yet that gap forms the very heart of the experience of watching a work of this kind. The condemnation of distant crimes that do not impact our lives directly is not a difficult or a dangerous position to adopt but, in this context, One Hour Eighteen Minutes unfortunately demands little else from us.