Little Eagles, Hampstead Theatre, London

High-flyers come back down to earth

Michael Coveney
Sunday 23 October 2011 02:44

The question of how the Royal Shakespeare Company re-states its commitment to new writing is at last being tackled by artistic director Michael Boyd and his team, and a new play by Rona Munro, about the early days of the Soviet space programme, seems a good place to start the company's 50th anniversary year.

Peter Hall sent the RSC into orbit at more or less the same time as Yuri Gagarin left the launch pad, one of the "little eagles" of the unsung hero, designer and engineer Sergei Pavlovich Korolyov.

Munro tells his story as a scientific progress from his lucky survival in one of Stalin's gulags – "our enemies are right in the heart of our great nation, like rats in a barrel of wheat" intones the old tyrant on the frozen steppes – to national hero, backroom boffin legend and pawn in the political manoeuvrings of the Cold War.

But half way through, Munro – and the audience – becomes more interested in Gagarin himself, who's survived his own personal gulag of sleep deprivation and oxygen tests to become the man who first touched the stars and then, like David Bowie, fell to earth.

This shift of emphasis creates a fatal schism in the play and railroads it from being a modern version of Brecht's Galileo into a much tamer sort of historical survey, with Korolyov battling against both Kruschev's patriotic demands and his own serious heart condition.

It's important that a company with the resources (even after Arts Council cuts) of the RSC should attempt to renew the epic drama in this way. The trouble here is that the subject is more interesting than the people Munro has actually written, whatever their qualities in real life. The RSC ensemble tries valiantly to inject some personality into a long list of wooden characters and supernumeraries, but unexpected ethnicity or Celtic fire are never going to be sufficient. Greg Hicks does best as a ghost of the gulag and a brutal army officer.

Designer Ti Green creates a large ground level arena which director Roxana Silbert populates with dying prisoners, marching guards and soldiers, get-fit astronauts and scientists.

A huge shard-like steel rocket soars, immobile, into the sky, a model of Sputnik rotates spikily into view and, after flying like Raymond Briggs's Snowman into space, Gagarin touches down, dragging a huge parachute behind him, into a field of mystified peasants. That scene is the most moving in a play that otherwise sounds pre-programmed, like the space flight itself.

One of the peasants is played by Sandy Neilson, who doubles as the lunatic-sounding Uncle Joe of the prologue, and Brian Doherty has a minor field day, too, with Nikita Khrushchev, delightfully bald and uncouth, speaking in oaths and toasts.

Boyd's RSC ensemble is now divided between the new theatre in Stratford and this Hampstead season, just as Peter Hall's first company shuttled between Stratford and the Aldwych. It will be fascinating to see how they come through together in a year's time.

To 7 May (020 7722 9301)

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