A psychiatric prison in the USSR, 1978. We’re on an island and see dissident author Gavriil (Graeme McKnight), a Ukrainian convict, in the interrogation room with Doctor Yurchak (Matthew Thomas). Yurchak has little patience with his subject until he discovers Gavriil’s talent for storytelling; dissident stories, that is, from the prisoners’ library (where guards cannot go). Yurchak starts using their sessions for listening to them in exchange for small gifts and, more significantly, protection against serious torture.
Eve Leigh’s first full-length play is entirely set in the interrogation room and sees two other characters fulfil disproportionally small roles in the second part of the story. Neither of these things is necessarily bad, but here they seem to symbolise what is lacking: context and coherence. Despite clever literary references built into the narrative through Gavriil’s storytelling to Bulgakov et al. – writers whose political messages are lost on Yurchak, to the despair of his prisoner – Silent Planet takes a very long time to come to the point: the subversion of the roles of guard and captive. The process, shown in several sessions that become increasingly intimate, is marked by Yurchak’s often all-too sudden outbursts of reluctance to accept Gavriil’s interpretations of the books and plays he reads. Gavriil, meanwhile, takes liberties that cause more and more dangerous situations for the pair.
The confined space is convincingly presented, despite its openness as a stage. The horrible circumstances that Gavriil lives in are shown during brief moments in between scenes, when he is subjected to electroshocks and doesn’t sleep as a result. The world of ideas he aims to transfer upon Yurchak is sometimes moving, especially when quoting Andrei Voznesensky’s poem ‘Phone Booth’ in a closing statement. Yet I kept wishing for more action to keep the narrative going; it is only during the final stages that the repercussions of free thinking are really felt, not merely suggested, and what precedes these episodes is simply a bit too long and not always written to create scenes that carry the weight they should.
However, at eighty minutes, Silent Planet is a concise work after all and under Tom Mansfield’s direction, the action flows while the sense of confinement and oppression is felt throughout. The feeling that prevails is that of the horrors of brainwashing, and Leigh does successfully convey a taste of some of the thinking during the Cold War from both sides of the political spectrum.
An interesting play about dissidence and its effects under the Soviet regime, but somewhat lacking in confidence in certain areas, Silent Planet might still herald a glorious career for a new playwright.
Silent Planet is playing at the Finborough Theatre until 20 December. For more information and tickets, see the Finborough Theatre website.
Image by Andrew Witt