The Promise (1965) by Aleksei Arbuzov (1908-86) is one of the most famous 20th century Russian plays, and it marks the start of the third Donmar Trafalgar season initiative, sponsored by United House, to support young directors.
Alex Sims, who was a resident director at the Donmar Warehouse and is an associate on War Horse, certainly seizes his chance with both hands and comes up with a cracking account of this triangular friendship between two men and a girl across two decades in Leningrad.
Or St Petersburg, as it now is again. They all meet during the Nazi siege of the city in 1942, holed up in a dank, burnt out apartment that is magically transformed by designer Mike Britton into the renovated 1946 marital flat of the injured poet Leonidik (Gwilym Lee) and the trainee nurse, Lika (bewitching newcomer Joanna Vanderham).
Their mutual friend Marat (Max Bennett), a military hero, and first comfort to Lika during the bombardment, returns on New Year’s Eve, 1959, as the world changes once more and Leonidik takes a drastic decision about his future.
Normally, such compressed, episodic plays over several decades are a bit of a trial, pieced together without the internal, emotional combustion of this one. The famous old translation of Ariadne Nicolaeff has been given a fresh look by Philip Evans then overhauled and sharpened by Penelope Skinner.
And the claustrophobia of the Trafalgar second studio helps no end, especially in the first act when the place is shaking like a media centre hotel under fire in Gaza and they’re so cold they are digging their meagre rations out of cups with fingers, sleeping head to tail on a disgusting mattress, refugees in their own city.
Maybe there’s an element of “Russianness” missing, despite the posters and Joe Stalin photo on the wall. But what was always so moving about this play – seen several times on the fringe in London since the Ian McKellen/ Judi Dench/ Ian McShane Oxford Playhouse revival at the Fortune in 1967 – is its charting of personal struggle and youthful aspirations within the Communist ideology.
As a play about friendship and growing up, it’s one of the very best. And the Donmar Trafalgar season is off to a flying start with this notably well-acted production, teetering on the edge of the 1960s and (although they don’t know it) the real heat in the Cold War.