THEATRE / The Fringe: Russian molls

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The Independent Culture
The programme note to Helene Cixous's Black Sail White Sail (Gate Theatre) tells us that her plays are 'not so much faithful reconstructions, as poetic evocations.' That just about sums up all that is strong and all that is weak about her latest, an all-female play about the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova and the close friends who memorised her work and sustained her hopes during Stalin's years.

The play is best when it's painting the daily grind with a well-chosen detail; worst when it's wafting into grand poetic statement: 'After a winter 30 winters' long, who would refuse a rose-tree a chance to bloom again.' And its mission to evoke a mood means that, while there are some strong, affecting scenes, there is little dramatic impetus, so the piece often seems nebulous.

At its centre, however, is an interesting debate about the power and necessity of art. To Akhmatova, poetry is life, and, as the possibility looms of getting her work published after decades of silence under Stalin, she becomes frantic. Kika Markham as Akhmatova suggests the charm, vulnerability and selfishness of the poet, and she has some compelling scenes with Nadezhda Mandelstam (Michele Wade). But more grit would greatly improve both play and production.

Leonid Andreyev's work was also obscured in Soviet Russia and at the Lyric Studio Damned Poets resurrect his rarely performed 1912 play, Katerina. It's an interesting find, close to Ibsen in its sympathetic portrayal of a spirited woman trapped by her circumstances and driven mad by possessive men. But the talk of abortion and the sexual frisson that scandalised its first audience no longer make an impact, and the play is desperately slow - a problem that Sydnee Blake's painstaking production can't overcome, though it features a strong, febrile central performance from Louise Bangay.

Clarke Peters' Let There Be Love (Stratford East) is a beautifully polished tribute to Nat King Cole. It's slender and soft-centred, but so perfectly performed and sung by the velvety-voiced Peters that it's irresistible.

For details, see page 22

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