The plot of A Warsaw Melody is simplicity itself. Russian boy meets Polish girl, boy proposes just as Stalin passes his law that forbade Soviet citizens from marrying foreigners. Both move on with their lives and grow older, meeting up at ten-year intervals. Perhaps the biggest surprise is how passive they are about their predicament, which makes it difficult to think of it as a story of love across the divide as they don’t do anything to challenge the authorities. As the new law didn’t come into place until several weeks after it was announced, the fact that they’re so in love but don’t make an effort to get themselves to the registry office while there’s time seems like sheer laziness.
Leonid Zorin’s two-hander played over 4,000 performances when it premiered in 1967; it toured all over the Soviet Union and further afield and has been successfully revived in modern Russia. Making its belated British debut (a production at the King’s Head in the 1970s cannot be verified), Oleg Mirochnikov’s production is perfectly stylish and performed with sincerity, but the lack of any real dramatic tension makes it an unrewarding experience, one that is neither good nor bad. Indifference can be as frustrating as dislike.
The first act, set in Moscow in 1947, where the war still looms large in the mind, is a typical tale of young lovers. Trainee winemaker Victor, who joined the army straight after leaving school, is the naïf in the relationship, enraptured by the vivacious, outspoken and worldly aspiring singer Helya (as the foreigner, she has an accent) when they sit next to each other at a Chopin concert at the conservatoire where she is a student. Bickering turns into flirting; they date, dance and steal kisses in a museum while the security guard’s back is turned. After their separation, life goes on. As they catch up intermittently in the 1950s and 1960s, they marry other people, their careers develop and their marriages fall apart. Meanwhile, Stalin dies and the law is revoked, but is the spark still there?
Emily Tucker is a whirlwind of energy and makes the fiery Helya a likable heroine. Oliver King is rather British-public-school as the earnest Victor, who isn’t the most exciting hero, but he brings a committed sense of decency to the role. The way in which Agnes Treplin’s versatile set utilises hanging window panes to evoke different settings is cleverly done, but there are a few too many drawn-out set changes performed to snatches of Chopin.
In Franklin D. Reeve’s translation, the play has its poetic moments, but the piece itself doesn’t have the lush, plaintive lyricism of something like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, another 1960s tale of star-crossed lovers forced apart by adult realities. The quasi-poetic ending, in which Victor scatters sheets of paper over the stage and Helya performs an interpretive dance of death seems to come rather too late, a stylistic overhaul at the last minute.
Read Exeunt’s interview with director Oleg Mirochnikov here.