Little Eagles, Hampstead, London
King James Bible, Shakespeare's Globe, London
David Mamet Double Bill, Arcola, London
The story of the scientist behind the Sputnik space programme will never get off the launch pad in this underpowered production
Sunday 24 April 2011
To go where no man has gone before, or no leading British playwright anyway: that was Rona Munro's mission on penning Little Eagles, a biodrama about Sergei Korolyov, a hitherto "unsung hero", according to the pre-publicity for this premiere, launching an RSC season in Hampstead.
Everyone has heard of Yuri Gagarin and his Earth-orbiting voyage, 50 years ago this month. Korolyov was the Russian mastermind and chief designer who oversaw both the Sputnik and Vostok programmes in the space race, until he died prematurely in 1966.
Little Eagles begins with Korolyov's career in a near-fatal early dip. Imprisoned in a grey Siberian labour camp, Darrell D'Silva's Korolyov is half-frozen and beaten by vicious guards, but proves to be survivor with a dream and tenacious drive.
Re-employed by the authorities, he develops Cold War ballistic missiles, then dares to advocate a space-conquering programme instead. Impressing Brian Doherty's swaggering Khrushchev, he becomes the top dog in this enterprise, ousting the colleague who formerly denounced him, John Mackay's twitchy Valentin Glushko, for a while at least.
Post-Khrushchev, as Korolyov struggles to remain in favour, Little Eagles portrays him as tragic hero, doomed, in part, because he's stand-out figure in a system that swears by mass, egalitarian levelling. A Red Army commanding officer, Greg Hicks's Geladze, asks suspicious questions and – getting hot-headed responses – turns into Korolyov's potential nemesis. Yet the scientist is his own enemy, too, working himself to death to maintain safety standards in the face of slashed funding – dreading the death of a cosmonaut.
Some of this is gripping, but the narrative struggles to keep its multiple balls in the air. There are bemusing gaps, sketchy subplots and a scene introducing us to Gagarin (an eager, confident Dyfan Dwyfor) which looks confusingly like a flashback to Korolyov's youth. The dialogue, veering into the semi-poetic, has a scattering of vivid descriptive images. But in Roxana Silbert's production, even the aerial choreography is underwhelming. Little Eagles is, alas, no high flyer.
A spirit of epic adventure has taken hold, more winningly, at Shakespeare's Globe. Artistic director Dominic Dromgoole hasn't beamed himself up to the Starship Enterprise quite yet, but he'll be going truly global in 2012, playing host to 38 international companies. Meanwhile, throughout Easter week, the timber-framed theatre has been presenting a cover-to-cover recitation of the King James Bible – the seminal translation of 1611.
The session I caught was certainly going to test just how good a book this is, for it included Joshua and Judges, with chunks that are just lists detailing which cities were divvied up to which clans, as the "children of Israel" tried to secure a foothold. That these passages proved mesmerising in performance was a little short of a miracle. I speak as a committed atheist, but there is an enchanting simplicity and intimacy to Jacqueline Somerville's staging, with a handful of actors taking turns, not preaching from a tome, but wandering across the bare wooden stage as they address us directly, as storytellers (one earphone in, playing them the text).
Daniel Langley – an accomplished newcomer – even managed to make the interminable lists seem gently teasing, and magically conjured up glimpses of a distant land – the curve of coastline in a tiny sweep of his hand. Elsewhere among the cast there was some fluffing. But dramatically hair-raising stories suddenly emerge. ("Then Jael Heber's wife ...went softly unto him, and smote the nail into his temples.") And while this translation's lyrical repetitions ("Libnah with her suburbs, and Jattir, and Eshtemoa, with their suburbs ...") are as soothing as a 17th-century shipping forecast, what emerges from this Old Testament reading is a disturbing, still topical portrait of unending tribal conflicts and religious fundamentalism justifying slaughter.
In the Arcola's double bill of David Mamet's rarely aired Lakeboat and Prairie du Chien, the latter is a creepy and elusive short, set on a 1910 night train, where guns may be pulled in a poker game being played in parallel with a spooky tale told about a murder. Lakeboat is an early play in which an explosively moody crew on a cargo boat reveals flashes of sensitivity and despair, confiding in college boy Dale. He, roughing it as their cook, believes that his predecessor met a nasty end.
This collection of motor-mouthed snippets is shot through with misogynistic anecdotes, which can get wearisome. Director Abbey Wright doesn't always get the pacing right, but Helen Goddard's corroded, studded-iron set is terrific, and Wright has assembled an impressive cast.
'Little Eagles' (020-7722 9301) to 7 May; Recital of the King James Bible (020-7401 9919) today and tomorrow; 'Lakeboat' and 'Prairie du Chien' (020-7503 1646) to 7 May
Kate Bassett relives The Passion, a three-day event in Port Talbot, with Michael Sheen as Christ
Wife to James Whelan is an overlooked gem by Irish playwright Teresa Deevy, whose career ended when in 1937 the Abbey, Dublin, turned down this play, a portrait of love and friendship among small-town lads and lasses. Gavin McAlinden's London fringe premiere boasts an admirable young ensemble at the up-and-coming New Diorama, to Sat.
Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression
tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros
Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awardsTheatre
Grace DentChannel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Rarest Beanie Baby bought for just £10 at car boot sale could be sold for £62,500 on eBay
- 2 Katie Hopkins and The Sun editor David Dinsmore reported to police for incitement to racial hatred following migrant boat column
- 3 Giorgio Armani criticises the way some gay men dress saying 'a man has to be a man'
- 4 Rebecca Francis accuses Ricky Gervais of using 'influence' to target female hunters after receiving barrage of death threats
- 5 Australian student Tommy Connolly, 23, adopts his pregnant, homeless 17-year-old cousin to give her a chance at 'a better life'
Britain's Got Talent 2015: RSPCA investigating Marc Metral's miming dog after cruelty complaints
Star Wars 7: George Lucas admits he hasn't seen The Force Awakens trailer
Star Wars: Rogue One trailer: Watch the teaser for the Jedi-less Death Star heist film
Avengers Age of Ultron: 'After credits' scene leaks online days before public release
Groundhog Day musical to premiere at Old Vic from Matilda theatre director
If I’m being racially abused I don’t need a stranger with a saviour complex to rescue me
The only black face in the Ukip manifesto is on the page about overseas aid
Ukip is the only main political party to not address LGBT rights in its manifesto
Food banks: One million Britons will soon be using them, according to Trussell Trust
Religion isn't growing, it is becoming vigorous in its demise, says philosopher AC Grayling
BBC election debate: The one photo that summed up the whole 90-minute leaders debate