Terrible things do happen in theatres: Which Witch, Bernadette and Matador spring immediately to mind. Even real murder has been committed in the shadow of a playhouse chandelier (“Apart from that, Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?”).
But the nightmare of all time was the occupation of a Moscow theatre by Chechen rebels, half of them heavily veiled women, kitted out with explosives and machine guns, in October 2002, during a performance of a new hit musical, Nord-Ost (“North West”), based on a popular Russian novel about heroes of polar exploration. When the federal forces stormed the theatre after fifty-seven hours, under a smokescreen of lethal gas, all 40 rebels, and 150 theatre-goers, were killed.
In Your Hands by a young American-based Muscovite, Natalia Pelevine, is a pedestrian account of this horror, leavened with some nasty shock tactics (loud gun shots, rebel soldiers stomping up and down the tiny New End theatre, characters suddenly talking in seats next to us) and snippets of conversation between hostages and Chechens.
The rebels were demanding complete withdrawal of Soviet troops from their country and of course Putin stood firm. In the theatre, which becomes a torture chamber in more senses than one, a journalist (Tracey Wilkinson) engages the attention of a veiled, wired-up terrorist Seda (Laura Dos Santos) and, bizarrely, they discover common territory.
A German businessman, edgily played by Antony Edridge (“We’ve been taken over; no, not by Merrill Lynch,” he barks down his mobile phone) bullies his pretty, mute until resistant, girlfriend (Clare Wilkie). And a mother and adult daughter (Janie Booth and Katy Landis) launch into last-ditch uncomfortable truth-telling centred on the favoured son/brother who rarely sees them but bought them tickets for the show.
The only tension that is engineered is the unpleasant one of being coerced into a theatrical “reality” that one would sacrifice at least a large gin and tonic and an interval ice-cream not to be reminded of. Faced with writing this sketchy, director Julian Woolford has little choice but to go down this route, but terror tactics are best left to the professionals, I feel.
On its own terms, too much is left unexplained. The setting on the stage is of a starry-lit night sky, but there is no reference to the content of Nord-Ost. At two separate points, rebels take out a prayer mat and start intoning Islamicist obeisance. Was their fanaticism more religious than political?
There are gaping holes throughout, speeches missing amid the trivial grunts and gun-toting. Seda does at least refer to the radicalisation of the Chechen cause in 1944, when her people were forcibly transported to the Kazakhstan desert. Human dignity, she then avers, is more valuable than human life, which sounds like a good place to begin the argument, not end it. But at least we all get out alive, just about.
- Michael Coveney