Russian playwright Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was imprisoned for his criticism of the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and later forced into exile after publishing novels exposing Stalin’s prison system. His play, The Love Girl and the Innocent, paints a vivid picture of prisoners’ lives in one of these camps, but being written for more than 50 actors it proves to be rather difficult to stage. However, Director Matthew Dunster has embraced the challenge, cut the cast down to 16 and transformed Southwark Playhouse into a nightmarish prison camp.

It’s 1945. Nemov is serving a ten year sentence in a Russian prison camp and is quickly confronted with the corruption and hypocrisy of camp life. When he meets the attractive Lyuba, a ‘love girl’, he is forced to choose between his own moral integrity and her love, tainted by the injustice and sexual amorality of the camp.

The Love Girl and the Innocent is in many ways a very difficult play. Not only has it got a big cast, with characters coming on and off like a myriad of shadows, but it also has a very rich and detailed language that makes it quite hard to follow. Some of the action would seem almost impossible to stage but Dunster has such a firm grip on the play and leads it with such vision that anything seems possible in this new production.

Dunster’s direction is fantastic. Even with a large cast constantly moving around the stage, the direction seems effortless and fluid, it’s organic and moving forward as if being guided by an invisible hand throughout. Dunster’s use of levels is truly inspiring as scenes are created from pallets being stacked and parted. Anna Fleischle’s set design is extraordinary and she manipulates the space and props with such invention that it’s fascinating to watch. Dim lights in a row are used as showers for the prisoners and light emerge from underneath tires to create a camp foundry. Their collaboration is truly what drives this play.

The actors have created a present and generous ensemble driving the story with energy and great feeling, and especially Cian Barry’s Nemov and Emily Dobbs’s Granya show great gravitas and commitment.

The Love Girl and the Innocent is intriguing to watch and shows the haunting reality of the camp’s prisoners, however the play is very wordy and hard to follow; you find yourself losing track of who’s who and just admiring the physical development of the story instead. The night is more a feel of physical action than a verbal story being.

Dunster’s production has great depth and is visually stunning. The design is spot on and really hits a nerve, honouring the seriousness of the play. Though it’s a long evening, it’s a very special treat.

The Love Girl and the Innocent is playing at Southwark Playhouse until 2 November. For more information and tickets, see the Southwark Playhouse website.