Les Justes (The Just)

Tue 21st – Sat 25th February 2012

reviews

Marion Pragt

at 10:11 on 22nd Feb 2012

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At the opening night of Albert Camus’ Les Justes, excited French chatting fills the Corpus Playroom just before the show begins. That should not put off the unsuspecting theatregoer, such as myself, as the play is performed entirely in English translation, save the occasional 'au revoir'.

Director Fred Ward should certainly be applauded for choosing this 1949 play, set in Russia and based on the assassination of Grand Duke Sergei by socialist revolutionaries in 1905, and relatively unknown among Camus’ works.

Charlie Merriman stood out as Ivan Kaliayev, aptly conveying the joy and fear of a young poet and idealist willing to live out his ideals, and eventually die for them. The play’s two women impressed in their roles of understanding yet determined Dora (Georgia Wagstaff) and the Grand Duchess (Maria Montague). The character of Stepan (Max Thoma) is notable too. With his harshness, he is in danger of coming into conflict with most other revolutionaries, including the group’s strong and endearing leader Boris Annenkov (Vainius Udra). Stepan’s role is often taken as a reference to Lenin – which the play hints at when it has him coming back from Switzerland after having suffered imprisonment. The director chooses to read some Stalin into Stepan too, which is supported by Stepan’s view that there are no limits and that the organisation of which the revolutionaries are part deserves complete obedience. Playing on the audience’s historic awareness, it also makes questions of which actions are justified and how far one can go to realise an ideal.

Interesting too is the role of religion in the play, whether it takes the form of the Russian Orthodox church or that of the revolutionaries’ zealous camaraderie and desire for justice. The theme is touched upon a few times, notably at the end of the play when the Grand Duchess visits Kaliayev in prison, but one is left feeling that this performance could have explored it more, to further elucidate the conflicting notions of life, death and justice presented in the play.

Les Justes is a play that can easily become a series of endless, abstract speeches on the nature of justice. Although especially in the first half of the show such speeches and screaming are abound, the performance succeeds in moving beyond that, as the actors excel at expressing their characters’ fear and creeping doubts, alternately with scarcely controlled emotion and with touching restraint. Are the revolutionaries indeed nothing more than common murderers? Ultimately, will they have to justify themselves upon death and will there be a god to judge their actions or do their ideals free them from any need for justification? If they are willing to spare children, should they not spare the Grand Duke’s life as well and refrain from killing altogether? Furthermore, what about the personal happiness of the group members and their love of life? What if the people they say to represent do not know and do not actually care about their sacrifices? Raising such questions in its characters and in the audience alike, the play has at the same time more than just this intellectual power. It is the palpability of the questions raised that makes this performance worth watching. The characters are not much older than the average Cambridge student - several references to their time at university are made – and one cannot help but thinking they are all so young, though yet so old, and one wishes that Kaliayev would for once just choose life, love and Dora.

Yet the play seems to be moving to despair more and more. Even if Kaliayev refuses to accept the pardon and forgiveness he is offered and insists on dying as martyr’s death, ‘No, don’t!’ is his last cry.

Coloured in black and white, the stage is simple but effective, serving first as the revolutionaries’ home, then as Kaliayev’s prison. The intimacy of the Playroom’s interior enhances the performance, as the audience in drawn into the scene, being in the middle of the heated debates and prison scenes. In the last, fittingly lighted scene, a rope is seen hanging from the ceiling and Kaliayev is led to the gallows, which brings the play to an eerie and gripping end.

This beautiful performance proves that the play deserves to be performed more often in the English-speaking world. Hesitate no longer and grab your chance to see Les Justes!

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Charlie Brookhouse

at 11:05 on 22nd Feb 2012

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You're never too old to learn; you can't teach an old dog new tricks. Better safe than sorry; nothing ventured, nothing gained. Many hands make light work; too many cooks spoil the broth. It is a weird thing that proverbs, like principles, can be contradictory and yet still retain their force. Though supposedly united by their revolutionary cause, Stephan Fedorov's cries for that "Revolution" make Ivan Kaliayev ill at ease. For Stephan, so long as all acts and atrocities are committed in the name of revolution, they are justified. Ivan, on the other hand, holds dear to him a number of principles to which revolution is subordinated. However, this only becomes apparent in extreme circumstances, when thoughts and feelings are forced into opposition. Stephan and Ivan do not, therefore, get on and Max Thoma conveyed Fedorov's dogmatism by cutting a menacing and glaring figure. Charlie Merriman, as Ivan, was more shifty and patently on edge. The dynamic between the two actors was impressive.

Ivan's initial failure to follow orders undermines the solidarity of the revolutionaries. Have they overestimated how far their desires and principles are aligned? Have they been perpetually overlooking the finer points of one another's characters and ideologies? Has their failure to delineate the meanings of their motive proverbs meant that each has fashioned the idea of revolution in his or her own image? Reproduced in the costumes of the characters are the non-reflective matte greys, browns, blacks and whites of the set. These are the moral greys of revolution and dull whites of blank incomprehension. Momentary hesitations, occasional stutters, slight pauses, followed by reaffirmations all convey the sense in which these revolutionaries are worriers not warriors. A pause too long, in this context, results in melodrama. If too short, we become overtly aware of the fact that this is scripted dialogue. Georgia Wagstaff as Dora was most in control in this respect. Her command of silence was fantastic.

However, I also remember particularly strongly a moment in which Ivan redirects attention away from Dora's confession of love for him and back onto the revolutionary cause. His trite phrase - 'One day Russia will be happy' - is then taken up by Dora, who repeats it sotto voce. She holds it to herself as one would a teddy bear in old age, all too aware of its lifelessness.

All the participants in this performance knew their cues well and were keen to realise the dynamic range of the voice in the intimate setting of the Corpus Playroom. There was quite a disjunction, however, between the accent in Boris Annenkov and the marked absence of inflection from the other characters. I understand that there is a point to this, but even so, it meant Wagstaff and others had a greater opportunity to realise the tonal range of their voices.

Director, Fred Ward, made much of a space backed by only two walls and that effectively overlooks two audiences. In one scene, Alexis, played by Alexander Thompson, was crouched over a table just off centre, shaking uncontrollably. Dora was attempting to comfort him. This was one corner, effectively, of a space marked out further by Boris and Stephan, each such as to make other corners. In the middle was Ivan. The arrangement was particularly suggestive, implying, perhaps, that the limits of Ivan's mental space and indeed his physical space were defined by these other characters. That the audience was also off-set in relation to the

performers, made for an emphasis on the different perspectives of the characters on the idea of revolution. Actors Robbie Haylett (Foka) and Matt Clayton (Skouratov) also truly inhabited this theatrical space. Foka's casual indifference to Ivan's passion and Claton's business like - "don't shoot the messenger" - delivery of damning lines were utterly chilling. Both were superb in their roles.

Criticisms of this play might concern the stylised hair of some of the actors, the occasional sense that Stephan becomes incoherent as a human being, and overemphasis on acts of waiting. Otherwise, this is a fairly good production of a difficult play that is hard to perform well.

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