Communism was restored, temporarily, last week. Gathering stories from Russia and the former USSR, the RSC's Revolutions season kicked off with two specially commissioned new dramas.
The Grain Store by Natal'ia Vorozhbit is the antithesis of old-school Soviet propaganda. Leaping back to Stalin's regime, this rural tragedy highlights how he destroyed traditional village life in the Ukraine – leading to social rifts, punitive purges, and the Holodomor famine of 1933.
That said, the action starts with a troupe of Bolshevik actors, satirising the greedy Church with – as their prop – an icon that guzzles money. Not all the peasants watching this play-within-the-play are persuaded. Samantha Young's cheeky adolescent Mokrina, from a comfortably-off farming family, answers back while, by contrast, her would-be fiancé, Arsei (Tunji Kasim), signs up as an activist. From then on, he's torn between his politics and his love for Mokrina and her relatives – half of whom are shot for refusing to pool their resources in a collective farm.
Ultimately, the mercilessness of Arsei's commander, John Mackay's Mortko, causes a riot. Making the famished locals put on a jolly show for a documentary film, he orders them to sing and dance when many are dropping dead. This ought to be engrossingly bleak but the patchy way the dramatic focus is distributed over 30 characters proves unengaging in director Michael Boyd's premiere. The RSC ensemble may be egalitarian, yet giving fine actors such as Greg Hicks barely a handful of lines as a tramp seems a waste of resources.
Kathryn Hunter plays a grainstore guard who suddenly has some sort of religious vision – a second icon, swinging down through the darkness – after which, mystifyingly, she gets to utter a couple of other folks' inner thoughts. Kasim's Arsei is, meanwhile, a bit bland. Young's volatile Mokrina is more magnetic and – right at the end – suddenly heartbreaking, as she hovers on the brink of death, dreaming that her lost siblings are joyfully encircling her. Crucially though, most of Boyd's actors just aren't convincingly starving. The stabs at tragicomedy – particularly the farting corpses – are embarrassingly puerile.
Playing in rep, The Drunks is co-written by the Durnenkov brothers, Mikhail and Vyacheslav. Here Jonjo O'Neill plays a post-Soviet soldier called Ilya who, after fighting in Chechnya, staggers back to his provincial hometown with shrapnel in his brain.
In no time Ilya is being hailed as a popular hero by the vodka-sodden mayor and the psychotic police chief. As election campaign rivals, both want his backing. And the third candidate, Ilya's old friend Sergey, now a newspaper editor, proves barely more responsible. Finally, Ilya despairs and hurls himself off the election rostrum.
Alas, while nodding at The Government Inspector and Woyzeck, The Drunks is a sprawling mess and a shallow one as well, in terms of its bitty storyline, its 2-D characters, and the lesson dispensed by Ilya's old teacher at the end: "Believe no one – only yourself." That may sound like wise advice, but in the context of Soviet Russia it amounts to little more than a withdrawal of faith in society.
What's delightful in this production is the imaginative delirium of Anthony Neilson's directing and the exuberant humour of his cast. Darrell D'Silva's Kotomtsev is splendidly crazed, amorously licking his sword collection while rabid dogs (crouching guys in rollerblades and gas masks) roger prisoners' shanks.
Even so, this hallucinatory bad trip lacks real political bite. Indeed, both the RSC shows are outshone by the National Theatre's East European premiere. Our Class, by Tadeusz Slobodzianek, traces the lives of 10 Polish classmates, Catholic and Jewish, from their schooldays in the 1920s through the subsequent dark decades under Soviet and Nazi occupation. Be warned, this is a distressingly grim portrait of xenophobia drawing on Jan Gross's book Neighbours: an exposé of how virulently nationalistic Poles in the small town of Jedwabne – accusing the Jewish community of having collaborated with the Russians – burned 1,600 of them in a barn in 1941, then blamed the Germans for it.
What makes Our Class – staged in the round by Bijan Sheibani – so moving is that it quietly combines spartan simplicity (just two rows of wooden chairs) with deeply complicated loyalties. It manages to have epic sweep through closely charting individual experiences. The use of documentary-style reminiscences feels harrowingly authentic, while the deliberately stylised moments – only semi-enacting the worst atrocities – paradoxically makes them the more chillingly imaginable. This is an excellent NT debut for Sheibani, with fine performances from Lee Ingleby as the cool-headed thug Zygmunt, Jason Watkins as his bigoted crony (later ordained), and Amanda Hale as the terrified Jewish survivor, Rachelka, who converts to Catholicism, saved by a man she can never really love.
The social divide runs, fatally, along financial lines in An Inspector Calls. Maybe Stephen Daldry should have a new production up his sleeve by now, rather than returning to the West End to redirect his hit 1992 staging of JB Priestley's vintage classic. But what's startling is how trenchant and timely this sociopolitical whodunnit proves to be, once again, in 2009.
The wealthy Birling family are rigged out in Edwardian finery as they sit in their mansion – spectacularly perched like a dolls' house on stilts over a foggy wasteland of poverty. But the smug patriarch and his circle – trying to wriggle out of accepting any responsibility for causing destitution and despair among the lower orders – are patently not so far from today's unrepentant bankers and fat cats.
The outer time frame that Daldry imposes on the action, with urchins confusingly dressed from the 1940s scampering round the sidelines, needs more historic clarity and less cutesiness. But the main cast are all superbly drilled, with Nicholas Woodeson potently fuming as Inspector Goole – the eerie, avenging spirit of Socialism – snapping at the Birlings' heels.
'The Grain Store' and 'The Drunks' (0844 800 1110) in rep to 1 Oct; 'Our Class' (020-7452 3000) to 10 Oct; 'An Inspector Calls' (0844 482 5170) to 14 Nov