This play by the young Finnish writer Sofi Oksanen, drawing on the experience of the Soviet occupation of Estonia, comes to London with a big reputation. As a novel, it won the Prix Femina, and as a play it has been produced all over Europe. Now it's at the Arcola's small studio theatre in a vigorous production by Borealis Theatre, directed by Elgiva Field.
The play begins with a brilliant short film sequence, projected in blurry black and white video on a white sheet, of a young woman being tortured in 1947, at the height of the Stalin-era drive to turn Estonia into a model Soviet republic and crush the remnants of a partisan movement hiding in the forests. Past and present collide violently for Aliide, an ageing Estonian woman living on her own in a cottage in newly independent post-Soviet Estonia, when she finds a distressed young woman fugitive taking shelter in her yard. Zara is clearly a prostitute on the run from her pimps -- that much is quickly established -- but her real identity only emerges at the end of act one. Aliide is forced to confront her own past and the betrayal of her sister to the occupying Russians. Married to a loyal communist who is the chairman of a collective farm, her real passion is for her brother-in-law Hans, an anti-Soviet partisan whom she hides in the cellar for years and who her husband believes to be dead.
It's a cracking storyline which is full of drama and incident, and it moves fluidly between past and present. Aliide as an old woman sits on stage and watches her younger self opening and shutting Hans's hiding place, and scrubbing his naked back in a failed attempt at seduction. I like the play's structure but at times the exposition is over-heavy, with actors reciting slabs of political history to each other for the audience's benefit. Having wrestled myself with writing this sort of play, flitting between past and present and faced with the dilemma of deciding how much background the audience needs, I'm sympathetic to Oksanen here but the treatment feels too novelistic. How many people, even in her native Finland, know enough about Soviet history to be familiar with the Stalin-era legend of Pavlik Morozov, the boy-hero who denounced his parents and was subsequently murdered by 'kulaks' (richer peasants)? This story sits awkwardly on the lips of Zara, a product of perestroika-era Vladivostok, who would probably never have heard of Pavlik.
The play is over-reliant on physical action and lacking in psychological depth; the crucial moment when Aliide denounces her sister and allows her to be sent to Siberia is missing. Oksanen paints her characters in black and white, not allowing for the various moral shades of grey which characterised the complex world of the Soviet Union. Martin the collective farm chairman talks like an editorial from Pravda even to his wife; Oksanen's characterisation and dialogue don't make room for the essential elements of doublethink and doubletalk in the world of communist ideology, and the gap between public and private language. The two ex-KGB pimps pursuing Zara are also fairly one-dimensional.
There is some good acting in this play by a well-balanced cast; the storyline might seem far-fetched but stranger things happened in the awful world of the Gulag, and to me it felt totally plausible. What I found lacking was an ear for the subtleties and ambiguities of Soviet life. The action is vivid, but always teeters on the brink of tipping from drama into melodrama because of thin characterisation.