Seeing a new Eastern European play in the heart of London was quite refreshing; The Harvest is the UK debut of Belarusian playwright Pavel Pryazhko, and his writing brings an atmosphere that might feel alien to the British theatre scene. Pryazhko’s play is about the simplicity of picking apples, yet it’s also about existing in a post-Soviet world, and so his writing carries several undertones that resonate with the themes of Russian classics, such as oppression, insignificance, and labour. At the beginning the four characters treat the apples with caution and care, occasionally glimpsing into the distance, fearing ‘them’, an invisible body of power they work for. Each apple has to be examined, and tossed away if it’s anything but perfect. Yet as the play develops, more and more apples go to waste, and by the end all four of them are throwing, breaking and smashing the apples, almost liberating themselves from the monotone action of the harvest.
It is quite brilliant how through a simple image of placing a perfect apple with care into a box Pryazhko is able to say a lot about working and the class system; a hard day’s work goes to waste, because their boxes are ‘rotten’. And this is the play’s strength: it makes us care about the simplest things, and manages to raise the stakes. And while some of the scenes were drawn out a little too much for my liking, the four actors, Dafydd Llyr Thomas, Beth Park, Dyfan Dwyfor and Lindsey Campbell manage to keep a play that has very little plot interesting, funny and entertaining. We learn very little about their characters, yet they all share a very interesting, constantly shifting chemistry, with occasional sexual tension and not too subtle rivalry. The actors and director Michael Boyd handle this chemistry quite well, although some scenes feel repetitive, and some of the humorous moments tend to be more slapstick than witty comedy. And while Sasha Dugdale’s translation feels natural and effortless, the repetition of ‘retard’ and ‘retarded’ left me with a bitter aftertaste, reminding me of the cultural differences that are apparent in this script.
It is difficult to say much about the plot of The Harvest, but the arc of this one-act play is very clear, and this is due to Boyd’s direction, the actors’ incredible energy and Madeleine Girling’s set design. At first the white-box set feels unnatural with its grass carpet and oddly dangling green apples, but it soon becomes clear that this is fully deliberate; as the play becomes more and more absurd, and the snow begins to fall, the characters begin to destroy the set, breaking boxes, ladders, apples, and even ripping the carpet. The production self-destructs, quite literally, as the fresh, pristine set turns into a demolished mess; the characters go from well-mannered and hardworking apple-pickers to exhausted workers who are bruised, cut, and physically cannot work anymore; and the perfectly green apples go to waste. It truly is a powerful metaphor and a clear and funny production, but the plot may have lacked some substance.
The Harvest is playing at Soho Theatre until 13 June. For more information and tickets, see the Soho Theatre website.