Oleg Mirochnikov describes Leonid Zorin’s 1969 play A Warsaw Melody as a classic of Russian theatre and “a classic melodrama, a big, serious weepie of a play.” It’s a much-loved play within the former Soviet Union, where it has been staged in 150 cities and in fifteen countries abroad, including Belgium, Canada and the USA, but has never been seen in Britain. Mirochnikov comments, “There are so many great Russian plays in poetry and prose that have never been performed in Britain. You can maybe explain it by lack of curiosity, or because people don’t find them thematically or artistically relevant, but I think it’s most likely because many big theatre companies don’t look beyond an obvious set of plays. They stage Chekhov year after year but probably wouldn’t look at Pushkin and Lermontov”. There’s also the practical issue of a lack of translations.
As a citizen of the former Soviet Union, Mirochnikov was aware of the play and its production history and returned to it when looking for a beautifully constructed Russian two-hander to stage. “We have the expression ‘A well-made play.’ This is a ‘well-made play’ with a very poetic, almost lacy text that has echoes of many great Russian dramas, particularly Chekhov. You recognise certain moments that have the same emotional and intellectual charge. Characters are beautifully delineated, very finely written and the play is very musical. There’s a lot of music in the play because the female character wants to be a singer and it flows very musically in the way that it’s written.”
Telling the story of a Russian boy and Polish girl who are prevented from being together by Stalin’s 1947 law that forbade citizens of the Soviet Union from marrying foreigners, Mirochnikov believes that “it’s a play about love and a broken heart. It asks questions about whether you should speak out against the state; do you protect your love at the time of reckoning, do you rekindle love when you have another chance? These questions have no boundaries, they could be asked by audiences all over the world. Thematically, this play has outlived its time.” Zorin has drawn on the parallels with Romeo and Juliet and in his new introduction to Mirochnikov’s production, talks about it as “a story of tragic love that was true 400 years ago; it’s still true now and will be true for many years to come.”
When A Warsaw Melody premiered, it was controversial for its downbeat ending, yet the authorities couldn’t fail to recognise its artistic qualities. Mirochnikov recalls, “Works of art in those days had to be optimistic to awaken positive feelings. They asked Zorin to make the ending more hopeful but he refused to do that. I was amazed to read that people were queuing up night after night to get tickets. I think the show touched so many hearts not because of the political message, but because of the very human and heartbreaking story. I was pleasantly surprised that this play has had successful revivals in contemporary Russia as there have been a lot of plays written since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but few of them have much artistic value. This is why theatres and audiences are going back to old jewels that provide joy.”