In light of recent current affairs involving Russian politics, Rajiv Joseph has written a powerful and educating story that has taught me so much more than the reports on the radio ever could. Describe The Night, directed by Lisa Spirling, has encouraged me to think a lot more open-mindedly about what information I should choose to believe and how easy it is to publish information with malicious intent.
Joseph’s story works on a few different chronologies threading together the history behind journalist Isaac Babel played by Ben Caplan and his relationship with Nikolai Yezhov, General Comissar of state played by David Birrell, and his more intimate relationship with Yezhov’s wife Yevgenia Feigenburg played by Rebecca O’Mara. The multiple time frames are woven together with different generations of the same family tree and how the repercussions of Soviet State policy meant that, Vova played by Steve John Sheperd, the nickname given to Vladimir Putin when he was younger, had a relationship with the granddaughter of Babel and Feigenburg called Urzula played by Siena Kelly.
Spirling’s production was intimate and smooth, breaking the convention of most modern-day theatre by limiting the reliance of technology on the performance. It was like a breath of fresh air to hear the actors’ voices without having to amplify them to avoid being drowned by sound effects however, having broken these conventions I had an intimate storytelling experience as Birrell and Caplan open the show with a light-hearted lesson on what it is to lie.
Polly Sullivan’s design is simple, yet it clearly expresses the darker cultural resonance of Russia and creates a tension that aided Birrell in his soldier-like apparel. Similarly, Johanna Towns’ lighting design gives the production an atmosphere of cautiousness and really helps to keep the chronology clear, however, I do think the blaring lights to show Urzula’s transition to the western world is patronising and unnecessary.
I was particularly impressed by O’Mara’s ability to clearly inhabit a diverse age transition within her character without becoming a caricature. The movement director, Chi-San Howard, is very effective in accessing this diversity within the characters.
The varying elements of tension in Joseph’s scenes is gripping and leads me to always want more. He cleverly extorts his text so that important lines are repeated and emphasised by different characters and relations in different time periods throughout the play. Although this sounds very serious and dramatic, Kweh and Joel MacCormack have a lovely second scene of release of tension with a quick reminisce about not wanting to die and telling funny stories about how Feliks, an orphan owning a cab renting shop, used to make up horrible descriptions of what his real mum is like.
The climax of the play is captivating as Birrell and Caplan fight it out as torturer and prisoner with such a chilling atmosphere, that Caplan’s desperation is extremely well executed (if you pardon the pun) and silence fell throughout the auditorium.
The smooth scene transitions, aided by Richard Hammarton’s compositions, really help the story flow and sum up the tone of the adjacent scenes. This is a perfect example of technology being used to aid the storyline when Yevgenia is struggling as, Ophelia does in Hamlet, with her sanity and is chasing the sound of a Cello that Babel promised he’d play in the woods, so she would know where to find him.
The production is slick, neat and important in challenging perspectives on how much social media and fake news we indulge in. The creative aspects from the actors to the designers is well collaborated and tells an immersive story with skill and masterful technique with little to criticise.
Describe The Night is playing at Hampstead Theatre until 9 June 2018
Photo: Hampstead Theatre