Theatre / Claustrophobia Nottingham Playhouse

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The Independent Culture
Reviewing the Maly Theatre's production of Gaudeamus when it first hit Britain in 1991, one critic applauded the superb performance skills exhibited during that work's 19 improvised scenes about the life of Soviet army conscripts, but ended with the thought that "it would be good to see them in a play".

I found myself in much the same position, and I find myself there once again after watching Lev Dodin's crack St Petersburg company in Claustrophobia, now being given its British premiere at the Nottingham Playhouse.

The Maly Theatre has won renown in this country with its productions of the epic six-hour Brothers and Sisters, Stars in the Morning Sky and a recent Cherry Orchard, all of which took off from written texts. Even Gaudeamus was a free adaptation of Sergei Kaladin's 1988 novel Construction Battalion, the only new literary work to have been banned by the Gorbachev government. In Claustrophobia, by contrast, there is no authorial underpinning to the flights of inspired physicality and sexy ensemble verve. As a result, the show often feels shapeless in a way that cannot be completely excused on the grounds that Claustrophobia is trying to communicate the amorphous uncertainties and instabilities of life in post-Communist Russia.

The show arose from the company members' reactions to their homeland when they came back after foreign tours. Set in the all-white rehearsal room of the Maly Theatre itself, with dancers practising at the barre and actors floating in surreally through the row of arched windows, Claustrophobia is a patchwork of Pina Bausch-like dance, opera, acrobatics and dialogue. The show reflects the bewilderment of the younger generation of Russians who are caught in an ideological limbo and face a dubious future.

The young people here call themselves "Ubiquists" or organisms that can adapt to any new kind of life. The blacker side to this often very funny piece suggests that adapting to the new can entail a reversion to the old. Towards the end, we see the "Ubiquists" setting up a collective farm and burning to death a free spirit, having convinced themselves, via the chanted catechisms of state-fostered false logic, that this man is a cow whom they are helpfully watering. From this murder, the piece then moves to its haunting final sequence, an "Aria for Damaged Soprano in A flat". Symbolising the attempt at united resolve by people whom the state aims to mutilate and suppress, an orchestra gathers and plays invisible instruments as backing to a singer who cannot recover her voice. It's an image of hope but a decidedly ambivalent one.

Claustrophobia is full of invention, zaniness and beauty, whether we are watching Lenin's embalmed corpse come to life and join his wife in a duet on a swing that rises high above the stage, or whether we are seeing "Ubiquists" literally going up the walls of the symbolically disintegrating rehearsal room. There are moments when your uncertainty as to period (is this bit supposed to be happening pre- or post-Perestroika?) is genuinely revealing and moments when it simply points up the fact that this piece is a couple of years old and too impressionistic and structureless for its own good.

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