Seeds was originally conceived as an in-person live incarnation, which we should see next year, but its podcast version is no half-measure. Directed by Nicholas Pitt and produced by Johanna Taylor, it was “hosted” digitally by a different organisation for each of its episodes. It’s a compact little thing – all episodes are less than twenty-five minutes – and it feels sure of itself, perhaps because it knows it has everything it needs. Its cast gives dedicated, sensitive performances, its sound design is careful and wise, as is its writing. Above all, it has a story almost unbelievably interesting and striking in its fact, one of those you can’t help passing onto others. I binged Seeds in a couple of days, but I’ve thought about it all week.
No Stone Theatre excavate the story of the Soviet Union’s Institute of Plant Industry and show simply how it continues to matter, to a worldwide population increasingly conscious of irrecoverable environmental damage and ecologically-induced disasters. Nikolai Vavilov was an illustrious Soviet geneticist and botanist, whose work centred on the biological diversity of plants cultivated to feed people. He saw this as a “mission for all humanity”, travelling to over sixty countries, and his samples started the world’s largest seedbank in Saint Petersburg. However, Stalin came to prefer the pseudoscientific theories of Trofim Lyenko, who rejected the study of Mendelian genetics, and by most accounts Vavilov starved to death in a gulag in 1943.
Seeds’ focus is not Vavilov, who doesn’t appear as a character, but his workers at the Institute during the Siege of Leningrad. For more than two years, staff maintained and guarded the collection in the building’s basement, and several died doing so, nine apparently starving rather than eating the seeds. Seeds introduces us to four of these workers and a woman (Nina Sosanya) in our present day, who discharges herself from hospital with little memory of who she is.
Jon Ouin’s sound design gets across the echoes in the structure of Nick Walker’s story, with spare and chalky strings and the scrabbling, squeaking of rats shifting back and forth into the sound of fire, applause, or whining wind. These two plots, a tragedy and a mystery, take their time to converge: eventually, the Patient occupies the same physical space the Industry scientists do, decades after, but it’s hard to say whether they’re the ghosts or she is. Her speech, counting the things she knows are true (“This is the sound of a heart monitor.” “This is where I stand and look at myself.”) gives us a piecemeal introduction to her, learning as she does. The group of scientists are prone to the same repeating statements (“I will do Chile.” “I will do Brazil.”), which are eventually all they have left as options close up.
As the scientists grow suspicious of each other, it falls to the relatively cheerful, ex-violinist newcomer Zasha (Kirsty Rider) to try to rally Dimitri (Graeme Rose), Leonid (Jordan Kemp) and supervisor Irina (Katy Stephens). The Industry aims to prevent famine, but it arrives anyway, and the scientists argue between themselves how many meals separate people from anarchy: nine, or three? They wait for the promised evacuation, sounding more and more haggard; they can’t bring attention to their case. The Patient is hungry herself, looking into a vending machine, telling herself where the products’ ingredients originate, considering the exploitation and effort assembling these snacks involves. Leonid, an ex-soldier, thinks of grains of corn popping onto the floor like deaths and crunching underfoot like bones.
A sense of loss reverberates through Seeds’ recurring images (a cat, a pocket emptying of seeds, a certain type of bread from Georgia). By episode seven, the two storylines have synchronised to an effortless sense. Best of all is how complicated things remain. While the scientists understand the collection’s real power to change things, the seeds themselves are the subject of a kind of representative fetishisation, flattened and sorted: Peru and Bolivia might be in conflict out there, but here their corn sits side by side, and Zasha observes that a seed is “a whole world between my fingers”. How do you make the choice to keep out the world beyond your fingers for the sake of the one between them?
I think Seeds is wise to the ambiguity of that choice and the story which it seems to tell, and its awareness of the impossibility of weighing up the future against the present affects the telling of this story, too. Seeds even spares a little time to note the complicity of artists in tyranny, and brutally deploys a symphony for a moment in episode seven. But it’s with Zasha’s artistic background and the Patient’s story that Walker speaks to what people can deny to others and themselves because of the lasting effects of desperation. That’s why she tells the same story as the scientists, from a different angle and years later, and we come to see how art – the violin – can fit into the same effort of living and being nourished. The Patient is a figurative (and literal) victim of the supply chain, of what it takes to keep everyone fed, even after the siege has ended – when things are meant to be better.
Distribution and what we do about it continues to tell different story of its own, about us; the continued survival of genetic diversity in seed banks has not been enough alone to prevent hunger, since Vavilov and his workers. For such a slight podcast, Seeds tells both stories expansively.
Find out more and listen to Seeds here.