When Vasily Grossman attempted to publish Life and Fate in the late 50s, the novel was banned and his typewriter was confiscated by KGB agents. Fortunately, Grossman had taken the precaution of sending a copy to to an acquaintance which was smuggled out of the Soviet Union and published in Switzerland in 1980, 16 years after the author’s death.
His sweeping epic is now hailed as a 20th-century War and Peace and Lev Dodin’s adaptation arrives in the West End for the first time, performed by the Maly Theatre Company of St Petersburg with English surtitles.
Life and Fate centres on Jewish scientist Viktor Shtrum (Sergey Kuryshev) who’s buffeted by the humdrum privations and horrors of life in Moscow during the Second World War – evacuation, rationing, missing relatives, disappeared colleagues. But his biggest concern is his research into nuclear physics, which is compromised by growing anti-Semitism.
It opens with a monologue by Viktor’s mother (Tatiana Shestakova) describing her ignominious fate: forsaken by her neighbour and forced into a ghetto by Hitler’s men. Her words are threaded throughout the play – her last heartbreaking letter to her preoccupied son.
During the first half, the action moves between the Shtrum’s drab flat in Moscow, a Nazi POW camp and a Soviet gulag where the hollow-faced inmates of fascism and communism debate. The similarities between the totalitarian regimes are clear, especially when the prisoners shuffle into identical lines and are ordered to sing.
Amid the bleakness there are moments of tenderness and lust, dancing and humour. Kuryshev is wonderful as world-weary Viktor, wry and jovial. Ironically, one of the funniest scenes is a surprise phone call from Stalin, which prompts Viktor to dance as only a desperate man can. He’s one of the lucky ones, but his conscience does not get off so lightly.
A clever set allows the director to do away with scene changes and layer the scenes on top of one another, giving a sense of scale to the horrors rippling across the continent. The characters are mere pawns in Stalin and Hitler’s brutal games.
Inevitably with surtitles, the dialogue is trimmed, but nothing is lost in translation thanks to Dodin’s ingenious choreography and arresting performances all-round.
At nearly three and a half hours, this production doesn’t pander to its audience; it’s a serious adaptation that does justice to Grossman’s masterpiece. It’s also a rare chance to see the Maly Company proving why they’re Russia’s finest ensemble.
Life and Fate is at Royal Theatre Haymarket, London until Sunday 20 May. The Maly Drama Theatre of St Petersburg are also performing Uncle Vanya at Royal Theatre Haymarket