The Russians are coming, for a few performances at least, to the West End. Eugenia Ginzburg’s Into the Whirlwind marks the visit of the Sovremennik Theatre of Moscow that is bank-rolled by the Chelsea football club-owning oligarch Roman Abramovich and also sees Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard briefly visit the Noël Coward.
While the account of persecution and yearning in the gulag during the Stalinist purges of the 1930s is bleak and unremitting, there’s no doubt that we are watching a great acting company.
In recent years we have seen the Rustaveli of Georgia and the Maly of Leningrad. With two celebrated Chekhov productions to follow this opener, London will surely be celebrating a third great ensemble that reveals the Russian genius for acting of an unrivalled power, lyric beauty and psychological intensity.
The company was founded in 1956, three years after Stalin’s death, and the extraordinary Marina Neelova has played the role of the persecuted journalist, Eugenia Ginzburg, whose memoir has been adapted for the stage by Aleksandr Getman, ever since.
It’s ironic, of course, that Ginzburg’s fate is hardly the last instance of any such persecution in the Soviet scheme of things. The show ends with a bitterly savage surge into silhouette as the all-women prisoners are consigned to the labour camps: what kind of society is it, they ask, when cruelty becomes a civic virtue?
Ginzburg is condemned to 349 days in solitary confinement. Another woman is given seven years for telling two jokes; another is locked up for “not replying” after she went outside for a kiss. All the characters are vividly and amusingly portrayed; this is the straight, far scarier, version of Prisoner: Cell Block H, where the demand for a bath is equivalent to a plea for life itself.
Galina Volchek’s production, with designs by Mikhail Frenkel, is a roll call of distinction, and we can thank Abramovich for treating us this week to a company that clearly feels at home in the Premier League.