MATILDA WNEK takes childish yet well-articulated delight in devised theatre from beyond the Iron Curtain.

ADC Theatre, March 9th-12th, 11pm, £5-£6

Directed by Andrew Brock

[rating:5/5]

Watching Babushka is like watching a music box of the kind I imagine a Russian Tsar might give to the royal grandchild. It is intricately, artistically constructed, unfolds with almost mechanical assuredness, and is as delightful and frivolous as a little spring-wound ballerina.

It is beautifully self-contained; if it weren’t already a cliché I think I might have independently come up with the phrase a ‘gem’ of a production.

The play is only about 45 minutes long, but it feels like just five. The pace, however, is distinctly measured. We meet our heroine, Maria, in a description of her morning routine; her getting dressed is recounted in a simple list of the garments she uses to prepare herself to meet the outside world, and in this sequence we become wonderfully aware of the confidence of the direction: we’re to be led along a course that offers up sequences of theatre for the pleasure of their aesthetic, instead of as instrumental to a later scene or climax.

Because of the process of devised theatre that led up to this production, and the trial and error it involves, we can be more sure than usual that what is eventually shown is something everyone on-stage is proud of, and excited for us to see. The result is a relaxation that is felt from the moment of the gentle dressing of Maria: the character is assembled, cumulatively and impressionistically, rather than constructed for the purpose of narrative development.

Photographs by Rosie Brock

She is kept distinct from the other characters: they communicate directly with the audience, responding to our reactions to refine their comedy, while she remains as unimpeachable and consistent as if she were performing just to herself. She acquires a certain transcendence for it too, becoming the ideal folkloric heroine and so justifying the telling of her story by the playful actors.

The singularity of her motivation, the almost spiritual fixation with a portrait painting, forms the central focus of the piece, reflected in the staging as the set is manipulated around her by the ingenious devices of Andrew Brock’s direction. This singularity is harnessed brilliantly by Sophie Crawford, whose simple movements have intense energy and control behind their gentle pace, and hold our attention unwaveringly.

If anything, sometimes the ‘cleverness’ of the scenes was obstructive. The disjunction between the highly engaged performances of the comic actors – peaking at an expert bit of meta-theatrical comedy by George Potts – and the impenetrability of Sophie’s Maria from behind the fourth wall was often the source of the production’s brilliance, but I felt it prevented any real atmosphere from being created.

When we were told it was hot for example, I was surprised, and I wished there would have been a stronger sense of Russian culture throughout. The live music, which may well have been Russian to my untrained ears, at least was not conspicuously so, and the impressionistic conveyance of character and set was not matched by a general impression of the life of Russian peasantry.

The overwhelming impression was that we were watching a very ingenious piece of theatre, and this was in part a feature of the implication of the audience in the actors’ management of Maria’s story. An atmosphere required a stronger sense of common style between the other actors that might have put some distance between them and us.

Aesthetically, there is much to appreciate here. The lighting in particular is used to great effect, with precise spotlights foregrounding aspects of the stage to create a highly dynamic visual. The eerie, empty papier-mâché  frames were a neat metaphor for the set in general – gaps left by the set make the limiting factor the extent of the audience’s imagination. And the production continually calls upon this faculty, in what can only be described as a playful delight in the very medium of theatre.

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