THEATRE / Red courage: Alistair Fraser on a Russian House at the start of Glasgow Mayfest

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The Independent Culture
The Maly Theatre, now on its fourth visit to Glasgow's Mayfest, made its Western debut here in 1988, just as the cracks began to appear in the Soviet regime. Since then, censorship has ceased to be a worry, but unfortunately state funding has almost totally vanished along with it. So touring abroad has now become a necessity to earn hard currency. Their current tour is a major retrospective of their last 15 years' work and includes an adaptation of Dostoyevsky's The Devils, as well as their renowned Cherry Orchard.

House is the Maly's adaptation of a novel by Fyodor Abramov, following the life of a small farming community in provincial Russia in the 1960s, and the production exemplifies all the qualities that have given the Maly Theatre their enormous international success. It is a hugely evocative adaptation, with some of the most powerful ensemble playing in the world today.

It starts with the return to the village of two brothers, Piotr and Grigorii Pryaslin, who have been in Moscow for 20 years and are bowed by the experience. But the social fabric of the family and village they return to is starting to crack. Their elder brother Mikhail, a pillar of the community and an honest man deeply rooted to the land, is one of the most outspoken critics of the disastrous policies of the manager of the local collective farm, Taborsky. Taborsky slavishly follows the Party directives from Moscow, which tell the farmers how deep they should plough the land, regardless of local conditions or the knowledge of the farmers themselves. They know they are ploughing too deep, burying the fertile topsoil and reducing the farm to a wasteland.

Nikolai Lavrov as Mikhail gives a stunning performance. He is the simple man who sees all around him crumbling but can't take the easy option and keep his mouth shut; he has to tell the truth. Although it is the major role, Mikhail does not dominate; Lev Dodin's careful and meticulously balanced direction guides the whole production, giving it the truth that he seeks.

Mikhail's family are split by his refusal to speak to his sister, Liska. She has been abandoned by her ne'er-do- well husband; seeking solace she sleeps with a soldier who fathers twins for her, only for her to discover he is already married. Mikhail cannot forgive this transgression.

The house of the title is Liska's; her husband returns to repossess and sell it so he can afford more vodka. Dodin has created a rich symbolism around the house: it is the family, the children, and a community that cares. He invests it with a deep spirituality; to lose that house is to lose life itself.

Eduard Kochergin's set reinforces this by using a series of huge wooden roof beams, the lynchpins of every house, each bearing a family icon. The beams fly in and out making the walls and ceilings of the houses of the village.

The company creates a deep impression of community, and from the smallest roles up to the largest, their commitment to the ensemble is unwavering, and the experience of watching their lives pass profoundly moving. As in Chekhov there is a deep sense of Russia, and of faraway Moscow influencing their daily lives.

But in those lives one can see the seeds of discontent beginning to germinate. The villagers oust the incompetent manager and against the Party line accord full honours at the funeral of an old commissar who had fought in the Revolution but had been sent to a Gulag during Stalin's purges. And for a moment, as the villagers, bearing their red flags, bury the old commissar, you realise the enormity of their betrayal by the State.

You also realise just how courageous this company must have been in staging this production, as it was first performed in St Petersburg, then still Leningrad, in 1981.

At the Tramway to 15 May (booking: 041-422 2023)

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