To be indispensible is to survive. Having been released from the frozen hell of the Siberian gulag, Sergei Pavlovich Korolyov rose to become Chief Designer of the Soviet space programme, its architect and aorta. He was the driving force behind both the Sputnk and Vostok projects; his vision led to the first man being sent into space, his ambition allowed mankind to – briefly – touch the stars and when he died the programme fizzled like a spent match.
Rona Munro’s new play for the RSC (the first part of a proposed trilogy) tells the story of this pivotal but little known figure (Korolyov’s centrality and significance were suppressed by the Politburo during the years of the Cold War). It successfully condenses a complicated and fascinating story – touching on the symbiosis between the Soviet space programme and their defence programme; the training of the cosmonauts, Korolyov’s ‘little eagles’; the questioning of whether the vast sums spent on the space race could have been better utilized in, say, feeding and clothing people – but as is often the case with biographical drama, it also suffers from an overly episodic quality; it’s more of a kite-string of scenes than a cohesive theatrical experience.
Roxana Silbert’s production does contain some memorable individual moments. A scene of wide-eyed and yokel-accented (the performers avoid Russian accents even when curling their tongues around polysyllabic patronyms) Soviet farm labourers confronted by a jump-suited Yuri Gagarin, elated after his orbit of the earth, is played, in part, for laughs. The sight of the cosmonauts-to-be competing to see which of them can hold his hand to a scalding samovar for longest contains an edge, if only an edge, of the testosterone crackle of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. The rivalry and camaraderie of these young me, their training, experiences and the glare of their subsequent fame, is a fascinating seam that remains only partially developed.
Silbert’s production never fully taps into the sense of wonder and vision inherent in what Korolyov achieved; it skitters on the surface but rarely digs deep. Blueprints are wafted around and a miniature Sputnik dandles on a string, but the sense of hope and magic of those early days of space exploration is only superficially evoked (at times one longs for the visual panache of something like Complicite’s A Disappearing Number, a piece which though clearly different in its objectives, succeeded in giving shape to complex theories while weaving them together with biographical information). According to one character, Korolyov “changed everything I thought and felt when I looked up at the sky”, but the audience needs to take his word for it on this. The scenes of space travel are also oddly low-key, a LED backdrop and some timid aerial work; though perhaps this serves as a decent visual metaphor for the extraordinary things that were achieved with such comparatively limited technology.
Darrel D’Silva, with frosted quiff, is gripping in the lead role, suitably bullish and driven as a man who refuses to relinquish his grip on his work even as his health began to fail him. Brian Doherty is both boorish and menacing as Khrushchev, with an amusing hint of Al Murray in his demeanour. Greg Hicks doubles as a confrontational Soviet general and the gulag ghosts that haunt Korolyov. Noma Dumazweni provides a good foil for D’Silva as a doctor carrying with her the carapace that comes from spending twenty years in the gulag. She’s the only real mirror to his character’s sometimes alienating drive and allows the audience to better understand how his instinct for self-preservation became so tangled up with the Soviet push for the stars (certainly his personal life, what we learn of it, takes a back seat to the world of his work). This is echoed in Ti Green’s set, a cold, factory-like space with grime-fogged windows and a blade of riveted steel – evoking both wing and debris – jagging down from above.
Munro’s play works best as a piece of storytelling, accomplished if a little over-long, elegantly plaiting a number of narrative strands, but as an act of theatrical trepanning it doesn’t quite come off.