Playwright Moses Raine has teamed up with his sister, Nina, to create this timely and claustrophobic play about modern Russia. Three generations of the same family are crammed into a tiny flat, overhearing each other’s conversations, scrolling through their Facebook profiles and reading each other’s emails – and so the play poses a question: just because the state may no longer be snooping on your every dissident word and deed, does that mean your family and friends are not?
Alexander (Patrick Godfrey) is the grandfather of the family, he’s a kindly and thoughtful man who lived through the siege of Leningrad and thinks most of life’s ailments can be cured by a swift visit to the local prostitute. He lives with his son Ivan (Paul Wyett) and Ivan’s wife, Zhenya (Wendy Nottingham), and their three children Kolya (Albie Marber), Petya (James Musgrave) and Sasha (Lisa Diveney), who has brought a friend over from England with her called Tom (Alex Large). The crowded house is crowded further by Petya’s on-off girlfriend, Clara (Georgia Henshaw), and Ivan’s PA from work, Natalia (Emily Bruni), who has been driven out of her own flat by the landlord’s decision to double her rent overnight.
With the house this full, privacy goes out the window. When Natalia turns up at the house with her suitcase, the welcome offered her by Ivan and Zhenya is overshadowed by the screaming match coming from Petya and Clara in the next room. It is, perhaps, the scene of the play that works the best – it is funny, uncomfortable, intrusive and, with such delicious drama going on behind the paper-thin walls, impossible for us to not to want to eavesdrop on their argument. Living out each other’s pockets is usual in this family; they massage one another, split fruit, guzzle vodka and comb the knits out of each other’s hair. Only when Ivan’s behaviour becomes more and more erratic, and his desire for privacy becomes more acute, do we – and the family – suspect something might be up. But what is it?
Moses Raine is a fantastic creator of atmospheres. Scenes of domestic snooping are juxtaposed expertly with remembrances of life under Communist rule. The hunger and paranoia of those times still haunt Alexander, a man who knows the real threat of an overactive state and the sound of a thuggish official knocking on your door in the dead of the night.
Yet, taking a step back from the individual scenes, I can’t help but think the production doesn’t quite hang together as well as it should. A few characters are wildly underdrawn, and really, the logic of the plot doesn’t quite come through. Narrative threads are picked up in the first act and then dropped so that, come the denouement, we’re left scrabbling around for them, wondering what became of so-and-so; or whether there really was nothing more to a situation than what was presented us. It’s a sharp play with some soft writing.
Performances are strong across the board, Patrick Godfrey gives a heartfelt performance as Alexander, playing him as jovial man forced to hide his heavy heart, a condition caused – at least in part – by excess wind.
Nina Raine’s direction is incredibly tight. The overcrowded stage is well marshalled, and the pace is kept up pretty much throughout. Special mention should also go to James Turner’s spot-on set design, which captures the tone, time and place of the action perfectly. There’s a sorry-looking suite of mismatched furniture, huddles of old picture frames clinging to walls speckled with Russian icons and, overhanging it all, a ceiling-hung drying rack, festooned with old y-fronts, socks, skinny jeans and string vests. Which, as it happens, brings me on to Holly Rose Henshaw’s well-picked costumes, the gaudy, God-awful nature of which are just perfect for the more brazen corners of contemporary Russian fashion.
Donkey Heart is an entertaining and thought-provoking piece of theatre with some vital dramatic ideas. Yet, despite its flourishes of wit and wisdom, it doesn’t quite feel like the finished article. It’s as if there were a brilliant play in here somewhere, gestured towards but not grasped – not satisfactorily so anyhow.