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The Leningrad Siege
Two Sisters and A Piano
WHAT THE PRESS ARE SAYING ...
an intriguing concept, in a fine translation by Catalina Botello and Rod Wooden, a droll bittersweet play.
"If, to form a relationship with a play, you demand to be wooed with perfect red roses, entertained by fireworks, and seduced by the image of a perfect life, then The Leningrad Siege is not for you. José Sanchis Sinisterras creation, making its English-language debut at Wiltons Music Hall, instead sidles up to you, laughs crazily, wobbles, then drifts around in a haze, penetrating yet indeterminate, like an old ladys lavender water.
Yet if you relax, hold out your hand, and allow yourself to be led into this story of two old ladies living out a confused, often fantastical, reality in an old theatre thats falling apart around them - youll find youre exploring the whole of 20th-century European history from an intelligent, if oddly tilted, perspective.
On one level this is a familiar tale. Natalia (Dierdra Morris) was the ditzy blonde star actress, the mistress of the Great Nestor, the theatres director, who died centre-stage, as hed lived in a mysterious fall. (Or at least the women think it was mysterious; they wonder if it was murder.) Priscilla (Rosemary McHale) was the faithful but frustrated wife of the firebrand, who though he was aging had continued to proclaim, with all of the traditional formulae, the cause of the Revolution.
After his death, all the two women had was each other, and the theatre that had been the lifes work of the man theyd shared. So, squabbling furiously and comically, theyve spent two decades trying to hold out, alone, against the march of progress, against the challenges of capitalism, against the enveloping arm of European art-ocrats, against decay from within.
They cling to the belief that the solution if not to the future of the theatre then at least to the mystery of Nestors death will emerge if they can only find the script of The Leningrad Siege, the work that was in rehearsal when he died, amidst the dusty, disordered papers of the revolutionary companys past.
As a setting, Wiltons, dusty, fragile and magnificent in its crumbling grandeur, is simply perfect. It is it doesnt just become the Phantom Theatre that they are fighting so hard and hopelessly to protect. Within it, McHale and Morris are two experienced, classy actors, playing two roles that well might tempt senior women of the stage to a bit of murder behind the curtain to obtain.
Beyond the core story, theres a whole other level of politics, of history, here, that they, and the play and the patina of the Wilton bring out. The two women remain, mostly, faithful to the cause, to the Revolution, to the language and institutions of the early 20th-century Marxist revolutionary. Yet capitalism, in all its myriad of seductive, dangerous ways, threatens not just the theatre, but also their determined ideological purity.
We know in one way, how it will all turn out - the menopause is irreversible, just like history, Priscilla proclaims yet do we? Can hope, and expectation, write another ending? Can you grow young, instead of growing old? Can the Revolution?"
Nathalie Bennett, My London Your London
"Doing a good play wasn't the point. It was just a case of being provocative, of exposing the flaws in the system." Given the state of political theatre in this country, this is a curiously prescient accusation, especially when delivered by an ageing survivor of old-time radicalism as it is in Spanish veteran Jose Sanchez Sinisterra's play, produced here by Out Of The Box Productions.
A quirkily absurd and at times downright peculiar treatise on the relationship among art, politics and a capitalist socio-economic system that prefers car parks to theatres, it highlights, too, an encroaching heritage culture that would rather Disney-fy the past than create the future.
Natalia and Priscilla are a pair of grand dames who now scrub the same boards of the deserted theatre they once trod while it awaits demolition. For the past 20 years, they've searched in vain for a missing script by Nestor, the firebrand director one was the wife of, the other his mistress. In between raking through a cluttered archive which wonderfully includes Bernarda Alba's jug, the out-of-time duo muse on old ideals, where it all went wrong and what would have happened if Nestor's Communist Manifesto The Musical had made it to production.
Played with delicious dottiness by Deirdra Morris and Rosemary McHale in Mark Rosenblatt's production, Natalia and Priscilla are like anachronistic leftovers from the Redgrave-associated Workers Revolutionary Party.
Finding hope among the ruins, Sinisterra has created a very funny elegy that's not so much end of the world as end of the pier, more Last of the Summer Revolutions than Waiting for Karl Marx. Odd, sure, but as one-liners go, the one about the menopause is snickeringly hilarious for unreconstructed Marxists and trendy post-modernists alike.
Neil Cooper, The Herald
"Valencian playwright José Sanchis Sinisterra is best known for his sly comedy Ay! Carmela, famously filmed by Carlos Saura, about a trio of Republican entertainers performing their cabaret turn, suitably amended, for Nationalist troops at the height of the Spanish Civil War.
With his second, gorgeously dotty play, a parable of progress written in the wake of the films success, he again displays his fond affection for Spanish radical theatre folk: the writers and actors who bravely believed they could change the world for the better with their left-leaning, socially committed drama and co-operatives.
But the year is now 1990, consumerism flourishes, the red flags have been furled, the parade has moved on, while Valencias crumbling, much-loved Phantom Playhouse, haunted by treasured memories, is threatened with the demolition ball to make way for a shoppers car park.
Ah, but not quite. Two doughty ladies survive against all odds, having taken up residence in the playhouse to preserve its fabric against attack from mammon and the death-watch beetle. One is Natalia, the companys former leading actress, the other Priscilla, widow of a spotty but handsome chap, the committed Communist impresario who once staged his challenging repertoire in the face of censorship while enjoying intimate relations with both women.
Now these sole survivors are reduced to polishing and dusting duties, forever changing the filing arrangements for the playbills, posters, press reviews and prompt copies, while doggedly searching among the Playhouse archives for that long-lost script of The Leningrad Siege, an anonymous theatrical tribute to their Russian comrades, much rehearsed, even designed and fully costumed, but never performed before a paying audience.
This may seem unpromising material for a great night out. But by one of those marvellous miracles of live theatre, the production brings together two of our most gifted if unsung actresses, giving portrayals of subtlety, wit and a blissful inconsequentiality that wholly delights.
RSC star Deirdra Morris plays Natalia, at first an unprepossessing figure in charwomans overalls and headscarf, but who in the course of two hours transforms herself into an ever younger, ever more beautiful creature, preening herself in the Act One gown she wore long ago as Lorcas Doña Rosita, or donning the uniform of a Red Army guard, creating an unexpectedly chic effect. But as an absent-minded creature, constantly wrong-footed by chance remarks, her stage presence is electrifying and her solo pieces offer deft, telling asides to an unseen audience.
Equally eye-catching is West End veteran Rosemary McHale as the widowed Priscilla, also at first a dumpy figure with polishing pads on her boots, but whose life is suddenly transformed by the offstage attentions of a suitor. This gives rise to a brilliant solo turn, perhaps inspired by Congreves Lady Wishfort, as she tries out the many ways of embracing or repelling his advances, an astonishing comedy tour de force. Like Natalia she also gains glamour as, dressed in becoming black lace, she sets about dousing the theatre in petrol in preparation for a bonfire, before the pair finally settle over a reading of the elusive playscript.
Staging is by director Mark Rosenblatt who last year demonstrated a rare skill with translated drama at the Arcola with his award-winning Last Waltz season of Austrian plays. It is possible that here he simply stood aside and let these two brilliant actresses transmute the text into a high-class comedy double act. But his clever deployment of the theatre setting (Ben Stones), lighting (a huge contribution by David Holmes) and music, not to mention sound effects, contribute tellingly to the overall impact of the piece.
The play was given a short UK tour in some less than suitable venues. But for this final London run there is powerful synergy between the plays theme and the crumbling theatrical dream house of Wiltons Music Hall, built in 1858 and now the oldest surviving grand music hall, just a few hundred yards from Tower Bridge, but more easily approached from Whitechapel.
If you are a theatre lover and can make the trip, whatever else you do, dont miss this Out of the Box production, a unique treat that ends its run on Saturday, 25th March.
John Thaxter, British Theatre Guide
March 17th 2006