Titles don’t come much stranger (or longer) than The Cosmonaut's Last Message to the Woman He Once Loved In the Former Soviet Union, but then plays don’t come much weirder (or occasionally perplexing) than the elliptical, frequently cryptic one that this title embraces.
The Donmar Warehouse’s artistic director Michael Grandage scored one of his most distinctive early hits in 2003, soon after he took over the running of the theatre, by staging David Greig’s compelling version of Camus’ Caligula. He now repays the debt by offering a home to Tim Supple’s broodingly textured revival of Greig’s own, sometimes fascinating but deliberately fractured, play that was first staged by Vicky Featherstone for Paines Plough in 1999 (the same team coincidentally behind Pyrenees, Greig’s new play that is currently at the Menier Chocolate Factory).
But Greig’s play has a large debt of its own: as it journeys peripatetically between a myriad of locations, from Edinburgh, London, Provence and Oslo to Outer Space, and embraces nearly a dozen characters that are woven into a densely overlapping dramatic fabric, it feels something like the work of the visionary Canadian theatre and film director Robert Lepage. That’s explicitly signalled by the sight of two Soviet cosmonauts that the play begins with, floating in space and desperately trying to establish connection with the earth that they’ve been cast adrift from for the last 12 years; but also with the strange connections that the characters, similarly adrift from each other, are likewise trying to forge.
At the centre of it is an unhappily married couple, Keith and Vivienne (Michael Pennington and Brid Brennan), with the civil servant husband fretting over their malfunctioning television and his own overheated restlessness. Soon, we see he’s having an affair with a Russian pole dancer, Nastasja (Anna Madeley), in London – and it turns out she’s the daughter of one of the cosmonauts in space whose father left for his ill-fated mission when she was just six years old. Abandonment is just one of the threads that winds through the play, with Keith later staging his own disappearance when he apparently walks into the sea.
Anyone who has also seen Greig’s Pyrenees may recognise this theme, as in that play a wife seeks to reclaim the husband who has wiped the slate of his memory and the past that it contained clean. (The characters even share the same names). But Cosmonaut's offers a jagged and intriguing intellectual puzzle all of its own, as these and other characters overlap and collide.
There’s a haunting sense of unresolved yearnings hovering over each of the stories it contains, and Greig sends lots of ideas and words spinning into the air where they float as buoyantly as the cosmonauts (Sean Campion and Paul Higgins) do over the action throughout. But like the cosmonauts, the play doesn’t come back to earth again, which may be the point: like life itself, it, too, is tentative and unresolved.
- Mark Shenton