August is the traditional month for holidays, and in 1991 Mikhail Gorbachev, president of the USSR, his wife Raisa, their daughter, son-in-law and two granddaughters, took time out together at the presidential dacha on the Black Sea. The plan was to return to Moscow for the president to make a speech of both historical – and geographical – importance. For in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall and Prague’s Velvet Revolution, it announced nothing less than self-determination for the republics that made up the Soviet Union.
Unhappy with the planned announcement, the USSR’s Central Committee and the army took drastic and heavy-handed action to remove Gorbachev from power, cutting communications with the dacha and making a prison of it, telling the media he was too ill to carry out his duties.
To use a well-worn phrase, his family stood by him, and according to playwright Penny Gold in her new play detailing those historic days, they save his life. So the drama played out on Robin Don’s effectively detailed set, an imposing interior flanked by rocks signifying the sea, is both domestic and political.
To Robert Demeger’s wonderfully uncomfortable KGB apparatchik, Plekhanov, the head of presidential security turned jailer, falls the role of representing the villains of the piece. For there’s no questioning Gorbachev’s heroism, even if he couldn’t see that the outcome of his reforms might lead not to the longed-for socialist Eden, but to a capitalism every bit as ruthless as the communism it replaced. Boris Yeltsin is an off-stage presence that Gorbachev fails to second-guess.
And the hero inspires total devotion in his family. The Gorbachevs’ affable love, born of a long and happy marriage, rings especially true as touchingly portrayed by real-life husband and wife Julian Glover and Isla Blair. It’s especially happy casting as Glover would resemble Gorbachev even without the carefully-added birthmark. Anna Hewson as daughter Irina and Roger May as son-in-law Anatoly provide believable and committed support. And there are charming performances from the young actresses who alternate the roles of the granddaughters.
It’s not just the younger granddaughter’s name, Anastasia, which evokes shocking memories of an earlier incarceration – ghostly echo scenes give sound pictures of the confinement and murder of Tsar Nicholas and his family at Ekaterinburg, also Yeltsin’s home town. This is perhaps heavy-handed, though Gold misses no trick in pointing up such uncomfortable parallels with both past and future, for example as the family takes action against suspected attempts to poison them.
Drawing as it does on Raisa’s diaries, The President's Holiday could come over as worthy hagiography – but it is nonetheless an absorbing and revelatory evening.
- Judi Herman