If you’ve ever wondered what a dramaturg does, go see Describe the Night. A dramaturg would have been the person who helped ensure that writer Rajiv Joseph and director Lisa Spirling were speaking the same language. Fittingly for a play that is about how stories both are and are not truth, and how truth maybe doesn’t always mean two people seeing the same thing the same way, Joseph and Spirling seem to have looked at the same play and come to very different conclusions about what it says. Which is, for a writer and director pair, kind of a problem.
Joseph’s play as written is a winding Russian fable, a pretzel of a narrative that moves forward even as it turns back on itself, stretching from 1920 to 2010 and back again in the lives of a set of mostly-historical figures, told through propaganda and myth and legend and half-truth and ghost story. Spirling seems to be directing a spy drama or a mystery, the tale of the lives of Russians both remarkable and ordinary from the rise of Stalin to the rise of Putin.
Whichever of these sounds more appealing to you, the fact of the matter is they don’t blend particularly well. Spirling’s straightforward direction can’t rise to Joseph’s heightened dialogue and sensibility. Some scenes are inescapably mystical, and these stand out awkwardly: Spirlingly seems uncertain as to how to stage them, and because the rest of the play is made so resolutely ordinary, they feel more out-of-place than they need to. The dialogue’s stylisation and repetitions and sudden turns want to create a world of magical realistic strangeness, but this production won’t let it.
And unlike the twisting, shifting nature of truth within the play – unlike the descriptions that writer Isaac Babel (Ben Caplan) notes down obsessively, frustrating the rule-minded government officers of present and future with their capacity to be both true and untrue – Joseph did write the thing, so it’s Spirling who seems to have gotten it wrong.
It’s a frustrating shame, because Joseph’s script is compelling and the cast is strong. Caplan, David Birrell, and Steve John Shepherd put in particularly compelling performances as a Jewish writer, the loyal Stalinist soldier with whom he forms an unlikely friendship, and the ambitious intelligence officer who, decades later, becomes said soldier’s protégé. All are historical figures but also, sort of, are not – or at least, are not wholly defined by historical facts in the way we generally expect depictions of historical figures to be.
Rebecca O’Mara as the soldier’s wife bears the heaviest burden of the writer and director’s tonal mismatch and does her best with it, straddling all of the play’s time periods and aging from vivacious lover to wacky grandmother. Siena Kelly, Wendy Kweh, and Joel MacCormack’s characters, the most contemporary, live in a wholly naturalistic world that could, perhaps, serve as an intentional tonal departure from the rest of the piece, but here isn’t sufficiently distinct, and so sometimes just feels like they’ve dropped in from another play.
It’s frustrating, too, because Joseph has managed the difficult task of tackling a very hot issue (truth, how we define it, how we discern it, how our governments participate in propagating or preventing it) in an extremely relevant setting (Russia) with some highly topical characters (spoiler alert: Putin) without coming off as heavy-handed, winking, or smug. It’s not a game of chuckle-at-the-reference – it’s just a story. But then again, as the play argues, things are rarely just a story. And as theatre and politics alike demonstrate, things go more smoothly when everyone’s working off the same page.
Describe the Night is at the Hampstead Theatre until June 9th. For more details, click here.