THEATRE / More than a chip off the Bloc

Slavs! Hampstead Theatre, London
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The Independent Culture
At first sight, it looked as though Tony Kushner's new play Slavs! was going to be a chip off the old block only in the derogatory sense of being a mere off-cut from his epic Angels in America. Part 2 of the Gay Fantasia on National Themes had ope ned with a short semi-jokey prologue which introduced us to Alksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov, the "World's Oldest Living Bolshevik" as he gave an address in the Kremlin during the mid-1980s. His speech commiserated with the younger generation who wouldnever experience the grandeur of the mountain-top perspective Marxism had seemed to offer on "The Granite Order of Creation". Admitting the need for change, he had warned that the reformers, lacking an alternative theory, were like snakes shedding a skin before the new one had formed.

Slavs! repeated this material and in its first scenes it clowningly fleshes out the Kremlin's ideological uncertainties in the mid-1980s in the shape of Politburo members variously shifty, intransigent, doddering or mock-visionary. In Matthew Lloyd's fine production, these sketch-like vignettes are diverting enough, what with two Deputies keeling over dead, one after jumping up and down repeatedly to symbolise his belief that Russians must now make a leap of hope. But the material feels uncomfortably close in tone to the sophomoric facetiousness of Moscow Gold.

Subsequently, though, Slavs! pushes much deeper and in a more painful tragicomic mode into what its sweeping sub-title (taken from Raymond Williams) calls "Thinking About the Long-Standing Problems of Virtue and Happiness" in the post-Communist world. Aswith Angels in America, the story is free to pop up to Heaven when it feels like it and concentrates on protagonists who, while being sharply representative of some of the key secular tensions of our times, have their destinies interfered with by drollyterrifying supernatural forces.

The chief character here is Bonfila (superb Imelda Staunton) a lesbian paediatrician who specialises in children with cancer. In a scene typical of the way Kushner marries whacky fancifulness and moral seriousness, we first see her in 1985 visiting the Pan Slav Archive where the brains of dead Communist leaders are kept reverently pickled in jars and where her young lover Katherina (Aisling O'Sullivan) has the cushy job of night porter. The job and the affair are at the mercy, though, of a middle-aged Politburo member (Paul Jesson) who is abjectly besotted with Katherina and out of jealousy has Bonfila posted to Siberia.

It's here the story makes its jump forward to 1992. The legacy of the Soviet period is hauntingly personified by one of Bonfila's patients, a grave, silent little girl (Carly Maker), who is effectively a mutant suffering like many others from third generation genetic chromosomal malformation as the result of an intentional nuclear explosion in 1949. "She's not mine, she's yours," yells the girl's mother (Annette Badland), beside herself with anger and the unfamiliar worry of having to pay medical bills.But the shifty Moscow official to whom she says this responds by trying to use her discontent to recruit her to a rabidly fascist party. When the woman crumples up the leaflet he presses on her, it feels like the most hopeful moment in the play thus far. Even that consolation is denied you, though, for it's not principle but the fact that she's of (persecuted) Lithuanian origin that has prompted the gesture. Offering no cosy answers, the play leaves ringing in your ears the question asked by the title of the novel that shaped Lenin: "What is to be done?"

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