Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate is an epic piece of writing chronicling a seemingly endless list of events (political, personal and historical), plus deftly embedded questions of philosophy and morality. It’s frequently compared to War and Peace, which suggests a work that rolls on and on, like the image of a comedy medieval scroll unspooling across metres of flooring. But director Lev Dodin’s beautiful and sorrow-filled adaptation for the Maly Theatre of St Petersburg is a production filled with circles, a bubbling mass of a Venn diagram in which everything intersects, overlaps and or is simply returned to.
The most obvious repetition throughout is the parallels Grossman draws between the Stalinist regime and its work camps, and the Nazi regime and its concentration camps. Dodin visually reiterates this with repeated lines of camp inmates from both going through the same monotonous role call of names or numbers followed by marching and enforced singing.
Interwoven with the stark comparison of methods used by Stalin and Hitler to slaughter and retain power is the anti-Semitism that Jews like Viktor Shtrum (Sergey Kuryshev) living under Stalin experience again and again and again, in events ranging from the threat of death or deportation, to the underhand bits of racism that become normalised as a part of conversation. These ingrained practices of prejudice also repeat with the suggestion that the Soviet regime, like the Nazis, finds anyone ‘different’ a cause for suspicion, for example, those with Ukrainian accents or other prominent characteristics.
The two other most notable parts of the production to recur are short blasts of volleyball and the appearance of Viktor’s mother to speak aloud the letters she sends her son prior to her death in the camps. Her words again reiterate the events happening in Europe backdropping the localised existence of the Shtrums, but her presence does much more. Performed by Tatiana Shestakova with compellingly controlled emotion, Anna Shtrum becomes a reminder of the circularity of history and humanity. She represents Viktor’s ancestry – including the repression of Jewish people in Europe for generations far outdating Nazi Germany – but also the short-sightedness of the men waging wars severing people from their own families, other citizens and histories on the land.
The use of the volleyball net, which doubles as a snow-coated metal camp fence, could be read as a simplistic comment on the juvenile, game-like nature of war and politics, but that feels too trite for both Grossman and Dodin. During the latter parts of the play when a pig-tailed and white blouse-wearing Zhenya (Elizaveta Boyarskaya) bobs the ball back and forth, it nods to the official Soviet poster images of healthy, happy Russians toiling on the land or exercising under a glowing sun. The irony of these pictures in contrast to the realities of life recorded by Grossman burns like bad vodka swallowed quickly.
In a play and production in which nothing is one-dimensional, the volleyball games played by the family and others form part of another repeated theme. When discussing the very worst of human acts, it can be massively crass to reach for sentiments like: in times of need, it’s the small acts of humanity that matter. But Grossman’s Life and Fate does indeed suggest exactly this, on a profound and spiritual level. In the midst of the repeated horrors faced by the characters are moments of tenderness, warmth, joy.
When the soldier she has been kissing by the dairy goes off to war, the young Nadia (Daria Rumyantseva) goes inside the house, where you expect her parents will berate her for being with a man, but instead her father takes her on his knee like a child, and comforts her without judgment. At another point, Viktor and his wife Lyudmila (Elena Solomonova) lie entangled in post-coital sleep, their bodies soft and vulnerable, whilst men stomp and holler on other parts of the stage. It’s the image that really sticks after watching the play: the naturalness and normalness of a couple loving each other, right in the middle of the unnaturalness of the barking, marching soldiers.
Life and Fate is on until 20 May 2018 at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. Click here for more details.