Theatre: On The Fringe: Kolonists Bridge Lane Theatre Evidence of Life After Death The Drill Hall

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The Independent Culture
IT'S NOT often we get to see a play about Estonia. Judging by Kolonists, the centrepiece of a fringe festival in Battersea marking 10 years since the collapse of Communism, that's probably because Estonians are too busy coping with the free market to write, let alone export, new drama.

The author of this state-of-the-nation number is an Englishman, Steven Dykes. Commendable though his attempt to guide us through the sour complexities of post-Soviet life is, Kolonists sometimes feels about as authentic as those concrete lumps Berliners try to pass off as genuine Wall to gullible tourists.

The object of Dykes' curiosity is the Russian third of Estonia's 1.5 million-strong population; those whose families helped colonise the republic during the 1940s and 1950s, bagging the best houses, and the best jobs, only to become second-class citizens themselves with the arrival of independence in 1991.

His mistake is to shoehorn his tale of one family's malaise into a model supplied by Chekhov: three sisters, Sveta, Manya and Lenya are passing the nightless days of midsummer in a seaside dacha, outspokenly aware that their lives are going nowhere.

This immediately introduces a note of borrowed languor into proceedings, a staleness that the arrival of their coarse, wheeler-dealering, Moscovite cousin Vassily, with leggy, PVC-clad "friend" in tow, never quite dispels. Showing a flagrant disregard for social niceties, their visitor clearly hasn't come to talk about the weather, but his intentions are held off by a deluge of dialogue about pretty much everything under the Estonian sun.

For those who can't get enough discourse about Eastern Europe, this kind of chatter will not be altogether unwelcome. There is no denying that Dykes (who himself plays the louche Vassily with hooligan assurance) has done his research or that the information traded is, for the most part, welded to his characters' anxious or boastful loquacity. But with NXT's fitfully sparky, largely underpowered production coming in at two-and- a-half hours, the drama remains little more thrilling than a round-table discussion. You could blame the fourth wall, but a play like this needs an author who's closer to his subject-matter. It looks as though, after two-and-a-half years of research, that performance artist Robert Pacitti has, on the other hand, got a tad too close to his chosen topic. Evidence of Life After Death could be "about death as a formal process". It could also be about pouring funding down a drain as a formal process.

Two men and two women, one in a wheelchair, adopt clinically precise positions against a white backdrop seething with video-projected images (a foetus, fleshy innards, silhouetted torsos). They set up various domestic installations (a kettle is boiled, for example). They inhabit a soundscape of heavy beats and portentous ballads. Little coheres.

There are moments of maudlin beauty, particularly when a chorusline of old women shuffle in unison to a cabaret finale about refusing to give up the ghost. In an ideal world, they'd be on Top of the Pops. The only countdown here, though, is on a television monitor, clocking the minutes `til the end of the show. Sad to say, there were long stretches when I could barely keep my eyes off it.

Dominic Cavendish

`Kolonists' (0171-228 8828) to 27 November; `Evidence of Life After Death' (0171-637 8270) to Saturday