Monday, 26 October 2009

Rural Russia meets urban Belfast


On Saturday evening I attended Prime Cuts’ version of Black Milk, a play by Vassily Sigarev, receiving its Irish premiere at the Belfast Festival. Set in a desolate Urals’ backwater, at a crumbling train station, a trashy ‘New Russian’ couple from the city find themselves in a clash of culture and values with the rural poor.

Lyovchick and his heavily pregnant wife are ‘shuttle traders’, hustling the locals to buy ‘super toasters’ for exorbitant prices. Apparently many of their customers believe the devices will enable them to bake bread.

When Shura’s waters break she is taken in by kindly ‘Auntie Pasha’ who helps deliver the baby, and the chain smoking female lead, with a dissolute past, becomes seduced by the notion of living a simple, honest life in the countryside.

Her abusive husband has different ideas and an intense and occasionally brutal final scene is played out, as Shura pleads with Lyovchick to embrace a new life and he attempts to wrench her back to the routine to which they are both accustomed.

There are moments when this play is almost Dostoevskyian in its ambitions. Dirt poor characters, so grotesquely drawn that they are tinged with an element of parody contribute to its black comedy. And with her string of abortions and supposed encounter with God, Shura threatens to become a Sonya for the twenty first century. Although, without giving too much away, ultimately there is no redemption in Black Milk.

The themes of the play are grounded in modern Russia. New money, poverty, hopelessness, alcoholism, vibrant but cruel cities and a forgotten rural hinterland.

However the director, Matthew Twomey, has sought to imply the drama’s applicability to Ireland by conflating Russian characters and identifiable Irish traits, including portraying the two leads as broad-Belfast spivs.

This was occasionally distracting.

The brash, new monied Russian entrepreneurs represented by Lyovchick and Shura are types only loosely compatible with the chavish Norn Irish personas with which they were imbued. The two are not, I would argue, directly interchangeable, although I acknowledge that the intention is to allow a Belfast audience to get its bearings more swiftly, within this unfamiliar Russian landscape.

The final scene is also, it should be said, emotionally exhausting and the relentless tirades of shouting and abuse might leave theatre goers eager for the quiet of a dark, empty room afterwards. But the barrage is necessary to understand the dynamic between the two main characters.

Ultimately this is an intense and rewarding piece of theatre which will take you out of South Belfast for a couple of hours, to a grimy station in the middle of Russian nowhere. Think the title of this blog!

Black Milk is running to the 31 October at the Brian Friel Theatre (in the QFT building).

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