The young actor Michael Legge has a face that can look at the same time broodingly belligerent and smarting with hurt, as though it has just been soundly slapped. It's a face that would be a red rag to a bully, which makes him ideal casting for the role of Maksim, the motherless teenager who negotiates the urban hell of a small contemporary Urals town in Plasticine. A play by the hot 25-year-old Russian dramatist, Vassily Sigarev, the piece makes its English debut as part of the Royal Court's international season in a superb promenade production by Dominic Cooke that is of such pulverising physicality that the phrase "in your face" feels too wimpish and sedate to describe it.
Turning the Theatre Upstairs into a heaving compression chamber (my dear, the noise and the people!), Ian MacNeil's inspired design creates a sinister, shadowy environment where the action pushes through and elbows aside the punters, with scaffolding viewing-galleries for the faint of heart. At each end of the space, there's an installation. On one side, it's the peeling attic bedroom where Maksim, in an increasingly troubled world of his own, moulds the weird private objects (including an enormous teacher-terrorising penis) that give him some sense of being able to shape his fate. On the other, it's the revolting school bogs where the hero and his sidekick pass surreptitious fags and are victimised by a ghastly teacher (Molly Innes). Perched on top of this is a grisly barracks flat, home to prostitutes and tattooed, depraved naval thugs. It's a set that slides out on a shelf, creating an even greater crush, for the deeply unsettling scene where Maksim and his treacherous friend Lyokha (an equally well-cast Bryan Dick) lose their virginity the hard way.
Sigarev offers a bracingly clear-eyed tragicomic vision of a world where a poor woman would think of the local elections principally as the opportunity to grab some of the cut-price meat the politicians offer as bribes. It's a dog-eat-dog universe where terrible deals can be done with people's lives for something as petty as a free pass at the swimming-baths, and where an unreconstructed dirigiste like the frightful teacher can despise Maksim and his grandmother for their attempts to care for each other. Categorising them with blatantly doctrinaire injustice, she says: "You attempt your home-grown welfare and the results are like this... delinquents and the dregs of society." It's a good job that some welfare is home-grown, though, because this pedagogue thinks their type should be shot at birth "or before birth".
Presented in the street-smart vernacular of Sasha Dugdale's pungent translation, the piece unfolds in a pattern whereby everybody – from an illicitly horny new bride to his best friend (in denial about homosexuality) – blames Maksim for their own shamed impulses. It opens with a coffin being lowered from the high window of an apartment, and ends with a suspended defenestration as the hero – who has come through this ordeal of an odyssey uncorrupted but by no means undamaged – has a final mid-air fantasy about the girl of his dreams. Sigarev sees the chaos of contemporary Russia steadily, and he sees it whole. He's an exciting talent and I look forward keenly to encountering more of his work.
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