Note: This review dates from April 2001 and the production's original Stratford-upon-Avon run.
Loud cries of "Bravo!" rang out in The Other Place at the conclusion of the world
premiere of Peter Whelan's new play A Russian in the Woods. In 1950
the author, as a 19-year-old National Service-man, was posted to
Berlin - a political innocent plunged into the maelstrom of the Cold War.
And that's exactly the situation of young Pat Harford, the central character
of this funny, sad, evocative and ultimately exciting play.
Though that's about as far as the autobiography goes. In the play, Harford
is left to guard a British army barracks in Berlin over a weekend. He
battles to keep boredom at bay - first by the attempted seduction of a sad,
beautiful, desperate German girl, hauntingly played by Anna Madeley, and
later by inviting back an American GI he meets in a bar, an invitation which
has devastating consequences.
The acting is impeccable in this intimate 175-seater studio-theatre. As the
youthful protagonist, Anthony Flanagan has walked straight from
drama school into this huge role with the RSC - and the RSC is lucky to have
him. The cast of eight has no weak link: Colin Mace brings immense
strength and subtlety to the intelligence officer, but it's Louis Hilyer
as Fraser Cullen who provides the most intriguing and accomplished
performance of the evening.
Deftly directed by Robert Delamere, this is a beautifully crafted play.
The first two hours are leisurely and tentative. Nothing appears to happen,
as the social and political milieu is meticulously established and the
complex characters subtly delineated. Then, in the last quarter of the play,
events occur rapidly, tumbling one on another in a raging narrative torrent.
It is precisely because Whelan has constructed such firm and broad
foundations, that he is able to build so high, so fast, at the end.
It would be irresponsible of a critic to reveal the details of this gripping
narrative, but in the course of it, Whelan explores a number of boundaries
which divide human beings - some marked with barbed wire, others with fences
which exist only in the human psyche. He compares the divisions between East
and West, between nationalities, sexualities, social classes and ideologies.
He explores the clash between goodness and political naivety on the one
hand, and mature knowledge of the complexity of politics and human nature on
This is a play without crude villains because Whelan understands and loves
humanity so much. As well as playing the young soldier in 1950, Flanagan
also provides a present-day narrative voice. This sets both the Cold War in
the context of the changes of the last 50 years, and the soldier's
idealistic naivety in the maturity of age. The result is a wonderfully
thoughtful and thrilling night in the theatre.