Set during World War II, David Ian Lee’s play tells the story of seven Soviet soldiers who turn to cannibalism, having been imprisoned for nearly a month with no food, clothes, or water, in a stone room once used for curing meat. Yet even within this horrific set-up, there are times when something kind and gentle results from The Curing Room’s off-kilter blend of military duty and the exigency of a harsh environment.
The act of biting, strikingly, seems to be the main taboo here, perhaps even more than the process of eating another human. Breaking rank and breaking flesh collide (the soldiers agree not to eat the Captain, played by Rupert Elmes, who dies first). The flesh that is highest rank (the Captain’s) eventually becomes rank in the second sense of growing
poisonous, and pursues an agency beyond the grave as it sickens Georgi (Matt Houston), the young soldier who cannot help but bite into it, profoundly altering the dynamic of the dwindling group.
The gore in The Curing Room is generally realistic. Half-eaten human carcasses litter the stage, and newly-dead bodies rock as they are disembowelled with a sharpened femur and a tooth. We take refuge in Georgi’s verbal slapstick, all of it horribly relevant to the context, from the old classic ‘two men were eating a clown/ one said “this tastes funny”’, to the ‘two sausages in a frying pan…the other one says “holy shit, a talking sausage.”’ As, the naked, blood-streaked living soldiers ferry naked blood-streaked dead soldiers to ‘the corner’ where they are expertly cut up by Georgi, a one-time farmer, the indistinguishability of the dead men from those who are soon to eat them does create both a sense
of animate meat, and of carcasses too like living men to be meat. The Medusa mask of the Captain’s head, offering potential, Edenic, knowledge of this distinction , is a source of increasing fascination to Yuri (Thomas Holloway), who is expressly forbidden to look at them.
Yuri’s obsession with the Old Testament story of dry bones coming together into living bodies (later appropriated as prefiguring Judgement Day) is part of a wider emphasis on rite in this play, as well as a questioning of rite, a counter-suggestion that ‘the rites benefit no-one’. It is odd that the most explicitly ritualistic moment, when, after the killing of Drossov (Will Bowden, too dangerous to be allowed to live), the remaining soldiers carry a bucket of blood onstage, dip their hands into it and smear it over their bodies, just doesn’t seem to fit.
Whether a practical decision to avoid the stage becoming slippery with fake blood or a deliberate use of evocation of penance and the mysteries of eating the communion that the prisoners tiptoe around, it sits off-kilter with the intense naturalism of the rest of the play, and reduces the claustrophobia a little as we see the actors stepping out of their ‘enclosed’ prison to collect the bucket. Yet, as the men have nothing to wash the blood off, they remain powerfully marked by this moment.
Naked throughout, the characters make up for their lacking insignia of military or marital status (the most we see of this is the blood on the captain’s hand where his wedding band was torn off), with words. Drained, they each speak the names of the people they love most, as part of a transparent fiction that they are transmitting them a radio message. Without clothes, or the ability to exit, the cast work out ways to allow the action to be concentrated in certain parts of the stage, where to put their hands.
When, towards the end of the play (in the traditional egalitarian motif that enables plays like this to be an implicit comment on societal (in)equality), straws (knucklebones) are drawn to see who will die next, we know that the outcome will make a huge difference. This is because, throughout the play, the characters are so well drawn. For instance Bowden says that his character, the ‘Animal Killer’ Drossov, was modelled on a lion, a caged animal, wary of competition. Though there is a sense of natural selection at play in his decision secretly to break the Captain’s neck in the night, this struck me too as the almost nurturing act of the predator seeking to provide for the rest of the pack.
There’s a wrenching twist towards the end of The Curing Room which, in revealing why the seven soldiers are in the room, perhaps even robs the true Lord of the Flies-esque final few seconds a little of its climax. The calculations made are exposed (is Yuri, dubbed a ‘fool’ merely game-playing to survive? Why should Harvey Robinson’s Sasha, ever-kind to Yuri, and the mainstay of morale have died merely because he drew a cracked knuckle?), as is the fact that some deaths at least were totally unnecessary for the soldiers’ survival. We sense, as Yuri finally understands the difference between death and sleeping, that something may have been cured, or healed, but also that the reverse could be true. But above all this play is a place where memories, loves, rank, humanity, as well as flesh are cured in the sense of being (attemptedly) preserved.