The Mandate, National Theatre, Cottesloe, London

A Commie in the family
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The Independent Culture

First staged in 1925, eight years after the Russian revolution, Nikolai Erdman's black comedy, The Mandate, is set among the former bourgeoisie and property-owners who are chaotically adrift in the new proletarian state and barmily bewildered about how they should define themselves and further their interests.

This is a world where it's more than handy to have a Communist in the family as an insurance policy against the shocks of rapid change. Indeed, as a condition for allowing his son to marry into the Guliachkin clan, Olymp Valerianovich, an erstwhile landed magnate who still has a few roubles salted away, is demanding a Party member as a dowry.

So, the bride-to-be's brother, Pavel Sergeevich, is called upon to reinvent himself as a fervent Communist, his sole proof of the ideological conversion the eponymous mandate that he flourishes threateningly. Meanwhile, the Guliachkins, whose contact with the lower orders has been minimal, are forced to rent some ragged musicians to pose as their working-class relatives in a prolier-than-thou bid to gain credibility with his new comrades.

Erdman, who died in 1970, wrote only two full-length plays. In the late Seventies, the RSC staged an acclaimed revival of The Suicide, a dark farce about a man driven to the brink by hangers-on who want to co-opt his despair to publicise their own grievances. It's for that banned work that Erdman is best known.

But as director and adaptor of this spirited, mischievously mordant new version, Declan Donnellan makes a strong case for the merits of The Mandate.

The play communicates the desperate uncertainty of these times through frantic fun. There's a lovely sequence where the tramp-like musicians are assumed to be the dreaded Communist visitors by Bruce Alexander's wonderfully funny Olymp, who promptly adopts the thumbs-behind-braces manner of a trade union official, and by the Guliachkin mother, whose mix of fluttering distraction and cold-eyed calculation is amusingly conveyed by Deborah Findlay.

Mistaken identity fuels the plot, in which a hilariously characterised bunch of die-hard monarchists go into raptures of awed credulity on the supposition that the young woman in an imperial frock who emerges from a hijacked chest is none other than the Grand Duchess Anastasia. Played with deliciously comic bemusement by Sinead Matthews, she is in fact the Guliachkin cook, who had been bundled away during a dressing-up session.

The satire of the old guard has genuine verve, as can be seen in Olymp's explanation of why he needs a Communist protector: "Listen: in the old days, we were rich, and everybody was scared of us. And now we're still rich, so we're the ones who are terrified."

It was presumably because of this merriment at the expense of counter-revolutionaries that Anatoli Lunacharsky, the Commissar of Culture, hailed The Mandate as "the first truly Soviet play". But the piece is also an implicit indictment of the ruthless regime that could drive people to such paroxysms of panic and make Pavel, the pretend "Commie" (a nicely driven Martin Hutson), warm to his role with worrying zeal. The nightmare ending that Donnellan has extrapolated leaves you in little doubt about the grisly fate awaiting these folk.

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