BWW Reviews: ANASTASIA, Pushkin House, April 9 2012

By: Apr. 10, 2012
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Ten years after the Tsar’s family and retainers died in a hail of Bolshevik bullets at Ekaterinburg, Berlin’s émigré Russian community long for the big skies of their homeland, long for the cruel certainties of the days before the revolution, long for some connection with Russia beyond Stalin’s secret agents watching them.

Not for the first time, a symbol emerges. Not for the first time, a sceptical community needs convincing. Not for the first time, there’s money and monarchy at stake. We know from the start that the girl purporting to be Anastasia, the youngest of the Tsar's beautiful daughters, is an imposter put up by desperate men with guns, so the whole thing is a cheap scam, a hustle, a fraud on the gullible...or is it?

Walking Thoughts’ revival of Marcelle Maurette’s 1950s work is as much an event as a play, the experience beginning in the library of Pushkin House, the walls of which are covered by leather-bound copies of the poet’s works and those of Russia's other literary giants and everywhere one sees the Cyrillic script that is the most obvious mark of Russia’s otherness. On ascending a magnificent staircase, one enters a drawing room that serves as a theatre, much of which is initially shrouded by dustclothes but, by the interval, it is filled with religious icons and Romanov family photographs – a shrine to what was lost in 1917. The costumes and aristocratic bearings of the actors maintain the mood and one half expects to see snow falling outside and hear the sound of a troika pulling up.

In an ensemble cast, the acting is somewhat uneven, but Eileen Nicholas gives a fine performance as The Empress on whose blessing the whole scheme depends, and Morris Perry does a splendid turn as the arch-sceptic Chamberlain. Alice Bird is ethereally self-possessed as the girl hauled from a canal-side suicide who seizes the chance to be someone, anyone, convincing even herself that she is Anastasia. Kate Sellers’ direction can be a little static at times, but her decision to show twice the doomed royal family walking to their deaths, as memories (true or suggested) swim in the mind of Anastasia, works wonderfully well.

This is not a play that offers obvious plot twists and slick resolutions – who is in on the charade and who is not, is never made clear and even The Empress seems to play along for the sake of “Anastasia”, a girl she realises is held as captive by the fraudsters as the real Anastasia was by the Bolsheviks. The apparently supernatural conclusion may well be The Empress’ engineering of the girl’s escape, as some kind of recompense for her failure to rescue the real Anastasia.  I hope so.

The play’s deeper message is more relevant today than ever. Millions of people have been displaced by revolution and war and ache with the desire to return home. They need their symbols, the hope that their lives still have a connection with their friends and relatives in their lands. These displaced people are prey to fraudsters and traffickers, populist politicians and a rabid press, bureaucrats and petty officials. They don’t all dress like Russian officers and their figureheads are seldom as beautiful as four lost Russian princesses, but they feel the same as those Russians did in the Berlin of the 1920s, those who hoped and hoped and hoped that this girl before them was Anastasia, Daughter Russia (if not Mother Russia) made flesh.

Anastasia continues at Pushkin House until 21 April.            



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