Sunday, January 27, 2008

Nameless Nobody caught in the crossfire

If you caught Radio Four’s Broadcasting House last Sunday (Jan 20), you’ll have heard the actress Vera Filatova speaking about further cultural fallout from the current diplomatic problems between Russia and Great Britain. It seems that her Russian directing team were mysteriously denied visas, so that at the last minute she had to revert to a piece she had originally performed in 2006, an adaptation of an obscure Dostoevsky fragment. I happened to be there for the first night at the New End Theatre Hampstead.

Produced by Luminous Arts and Russian Nights, Netochka Nezvanova – Nameless Nobody is a one-woman show astonishingly performed by Filatova. The staging is a simple black set, which at first sight seems sealed on its three sides. I wondered where the performer would make her entrance, which introduced a strange, musing tension even before the play began. But just as there was no obvious entrance point, there was no way out too. Whoever set foot on that stage, however they arrived upon it, would be trapped there. All very Dostoevskyan, I thought.

In fact, the minimalist staging worked to great effect. There were few props – a suitcase and a violin and some sheets of paper - but they were enough to conjure up a vision of nineteenth century St Petersburg. That’s the trick with theatrical minimalism: to give the impression that you wouldn’t stage it any other way, even if you had limitless resources.

Luminous Arts earn their name, firstly through their judicious lighting design, which seemingly expands the dramatic and imaginative space; and secondly through the luminous presence of Filatova. Her Netochka is a creature of light, drawn to it and yet at times terrified of it. And the light she is drawn to is her brilliant, flawed, seductive, appalling stepfather. It says something about Filatova’s performance that Yefimov the violinist is just as powerful a presence on the stage as Netochka Nezvanova.

The adaptation wisely concentrates on one self-contained episode of the unfinished novel. Netochka Nezvanova was to have been Dostoevsky’s first great novel. By 1846, after publishing two novellas (the literary sensation, Poor Folk, and the disappointing flop, The Double), the writer’s ambition was ready for a bigger challenge. The conventional critical view is that his skills weren’t. He abandoned the attempt before completing the first section of the book, with only seven chapters written, a meagre 170-odd Penguin pages. The narrative breaks off tantalisingly.

In fact, Dostoevsky had a valid excuse for putting this one permanently on the back burner. He was arrested for alleged revolutionary activities, subjected to a sadistic mock execution with a last minute reprieve and then exiled to Siberia. He emerged a different man, a different writer. It would have been impossible to go back to a work begun before all that.

So Nameless Nobody was abandoned by her author, as she was by her stepfather.

Perhaps Dostoevsky really was overwhelmed by the enormity of the task he had begun and couldn’t get past this brilliant opening. It is certainly an audacious bit of writing, a first person ‘confession’ told by a young woman looking back on her grotesque childhood. What struck me when I read the book was Dostoevsky’s skill in managing the psychological complexities implied in that narrative point of view, as the adult Netochka recollects and analyzes her childish perceptions of the monstrous behaviour of adults. In this production, this aspect of the original writing is retained and vividly realised. Dostoevsky’s heart-wrenching story of betrayal and exploitation – and love - becomes an emotionally intense theatrical experience.

In the Duke of Hamilton pub after the performance, as we mingled with other Dostoevsky devotees (ranging from Russian oil executives to a sculptor from Devon), Vera Filatova confessed to me that when she first read the book, she did not believe that it could be staged. Director Alexander Markov, who from his photo has the eyes and beard of a true Russian visionary, is to be congratulated for persuading her otherwise. I only wish he’d been there for me to congratulate him in person.

Netochka Nezvanova – Nameless Nobody is on at the New End Theatre, Hampstead until Sunday 3 February.

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