THEATRE / History lessons: Jeffrey Wainwright on Mikhail Shatrov's Maybe

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Banned for many years, Mikhail Shatrov's plays became the focus of feverish debate during the perestroika years of the late 1980s. They form part of 'the struggle for history' - attempts to challenge the Party's account of its own and the country's past and analyse it anew.

This new play, set in contemporary America (or at least in a Boston professor's sitting-room), is bound to appear like a surprising departure. In fact, however, the concern with the historical record and its effects is again the central subject, and the work clearly attempts to demonstrate how the convulsions of Soviet Communism reverberate in supposedly very distant lives.

There are two initiatives to the action. As Michelle (Melanie Thaw), an idealistic student, is set to leave on a quixotic peace mission to Sarajevo, James (John Bennett), a middle-aged historian, arrives to talk to two old friends of his father Alan, a film director whose biography he is writing. One of them, Patricia (the stoical Phyllida Hewat), is mute and virtually motionless in a wheelchair; the other, Barbara (Margaret Robertson), heavily salted with disillusion, wants the past left where it is. The fulcrum is Patricia's daughter, the college teacher Lynn (Vanessa Redgrave), forbidding her daughter to go while eagerly encouraging James's investigations. These take us in grinding reverse to two flashbacks: 1937 when Barbara, a penniless Trotskyist refugee from Poland is befriended by Patricia and her lover Alan, and 1952 when all three are arraigned in the McCarthy purge. .

One suspects that a good deal of carpentering has gone into this unconvincing production. The play is stated to be 'based on an idea by Vanessa Redgrave', has been adapted by Keith Reddin and credits two translators. The result is crude stage craft, (will Patricia speak?), leaden exposition ('the GPU, Stalin's secret police') and, that familiar signature of the thinking play, dialogue studied with metaphorical mini- narratives.

But worst is the reductive determinism of the play's viewpoint. The monolithic combination of fascism, Stalinism and McCarthyism is only opposed by the true faith of the Trotskyists and, under pressure, even most of them will betray one another and fall by the wayside. The McCarthy hearing, long outworn as a dramatic device, is used to climax this bleak narrative in a scene written with embarrassing crudity. So in the end we have a simple dualism: the total venality of the world against a small pure gleam of idealism. The self-regard of these heroines we are nowhere invited to recognise. It is ironic that a play that pretends to be so involved in political materialism should in fact offer the types of religious fundamentalism. Neither Braham Murray's direction, nor the efforts of the cast can quicken this tired amalgam into plausibility, much less excitement.

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