The Cosmonaut's Last Message To The Woman He Once Loved In The Former Soviet Union, Donmar Warehouse, London

By Robert Hanks
Thursday 02 April 2009 23:04

Waiting for the house lights to go down before David Greig's play, I could hear a party of theatre-goers behind me chatting away in Russian.

Waiting for the house lights to go down before David Greig's play, I could hear a party of theatre-goers behind me chatting away in Russian. It occurred to me afterwards that perhaps they were tempted by the title. They may have been looking forward to a blast of nostalgia for the days when Russia was a superpower - in which case, they will have been sorely disappointed. More likely, they knew what to expect: a clever, intricate, fragmented modern drama, warmly received at its first staging six years ago and rewarded with a surprisingly swift revival. It is still possible they were disappointed, though.

The guiding metaphor of Greig's play derives from the plight of Sergei Krikalev, the cosmonaut stuck on the Mir space station for some months during the collapse of the Soviet Union, when nobody had the political clout or cash to launch a rocket to bring him back.

In Melanie Still's design, two cosmonauts drift through the night-sky above the stage: Oleg and Casimir (Paul Higgins and Sean Campion) have been in space a dozen years, part of a secret experiment to test the effects of long-term isolation. Casimir is desperately trying to send a message to earth; Oleg thinks this is a betrayal of their mission. They are so cut off that they don't know they have been abandoned. Could this be a metaphor for the human condition?

Down below, in Scotland, Keith and Vivienne (Michael Pennington and Brid Brennan) drift through their marriage. The TV broken, chary of going outside because of the teenagers, they are not a lot less isolated than the cosmonauts.

Next we meet Nastasja (Anna Madeley), a pretty young Russian who has come to London in search of work, or money. She is, it seems, Casimir's daughter. She is also Keith's lover, but the strain of the deception is starting to tell on him; the first half ends with his apparent suicide.

The second half sees Vivienne embarking on a quest to understand what happened to Keith - what message he was trying to send her. Other plots and fragments of plots appear. We see Vivienne, a speech therapist, trying to communicate with a stroke patient; Bernard, a retired rocket scientist from Provence, receives Casimir's signal and thinks it comes from alien intelligence; Nastasja finds a new lover in Eric, a wealthy Norwegian.

I could see how the movement between these narratives, the glancing resemblances and momentary resonances, might be exciting and moving. But Tim Supple's production doesn't have the necessary energy and fluency. Wit and feeling break through, but too often the characters' responses to their situations feel alienatingly devoid of logic, and Greig's dramatic ingenuity feels like contrivance. In the end, the play feels as adrift as its protagonists.

To 21 May (0870 060 6624)

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