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 the other.
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.
A Russian in the Woods opened at The Other Place, Stratford-upon-Avon, 29 March 2001 (previews from 21 March) and continues there in repertory until 10 October 2001.