This review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com
In the days of the totalitarian Communist regime in the Soviet Union, freedom of expression through literature was stamped out, with works being banned and writers such as Alexandr Solzhenitsyn being imprisoned. Eve Leigh sets her play in 1978 when a dissident writer, known simply as Gavriil, is being held in a psychiatric hospital and subjected to treatment (rather interrogation) by a doctor, Yurchak. The story is fictional, but inspired by real incidents. Because they are regarded as already corrupted, patients at this hospital have access to “deviant” books in their library, but doctors, who are still functioning members of society, are denied such access. When Gavriil begins to tell Yurchak stories from the banned books, his doctor’s interest is aroused and their sessions together turn into discussions of novels, poetry and plays. Tom Mansfield achieves an edgy, claustrophobic feel by staging his production on a small elevated platform, furnished with just two chairs and a table. The play, a two-hander until near the end, explores the power of literature to overcome tyranny. It sees written words as beacons that can illuminate even the darkest hours of oppression, give meaning to existence and lift the human spirit. Gavriil is Ukrainian, not from the same country of the USSR as Yurchak and Leigh specifies that he should speak with a strong accent so as to emphasise this. Accordingly, Graeme McKnight’s Gavriil is Scottish, a rebellious street fighter who could have come from an old style Glasgow tenement block. He readily challenges his interrogator’s uncertain grip on authority and, in Matthew Thomas’s performance, we see both Yurchak’s discomfort in his role and his excited curiosity on tasting the forbidden fruits of the patients’ library. Much of the play’s dramatic tension arises from the ambivalence of the relationship between the two protagonists, leaving us unsure as to which of them really has the upper hand at different points and whether their intellectual discourse has sexual undertones. Silent Planet is a relentlessly bleak play and, even at only 70 minutes long, it is sometimes hard going. However, intelligent writing and two outstanding performances ultimately carry it through.
Performance date: 27 November 2014