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Review: Describe the Night, at Hampstead Theatre

Ambitious and intriguing play zigzags through a century of history in Russia and East Germany, mixing known fact with invention

17 May, 2018 — By Howard Loxton

David Birrell as Nikolai and Steve John Shepherd as Vova in Describe the Night. Photo: Marc Brenner

WHAT is truth and what is fiction? A Red Army commissar grabs a notebook from a writer, reads what has been written describing the night and the forest around them and declares it is lies. It is 1920 in Poland and the writer in civvies is Isaac Babel, the commissar Nikolai Yezhov: two men who became friends.

Nikolai rose to head the NKVD, the secret police who executed Babel in 1940 in one of Stalin’s purges. He too was executed one month later. Rajiv Joseph’s play doesn’t exactly follow history but offers a parallel reality that moves between 1920, and the present day and back to the 1940s and 80s and to 2010 in Russia and East Germany.
As it zigzags through a century of history, Joseph’s version continually mixes known fact with invention. That first scene diary, a key element, did survive, though not as here in the hands of a victim of the plane crash that killed the Polish prime minister and 95 others in 2010. Babel (Ben Caplan) did have an affair with Yezhov’s wife Yevgenia, but she committed suicide in 1938, so couldn’t have been in Dresden with her daughter to be visited by Vova (Steve John Shepherd), a young NKVD man who later becomes Russia’s president.

Babel reimagined with poetic licence but Joseph’s rewrite of history parallels the distortion of fact for political or improper purposes by regimes or by individuals, one pen stroke changing the record, making truth of lies.

Lisa Spirling’s production signposts the “untruth” of Joseph’s inventions (including Quereshi, a strange soup served to Vova) with the outrageously comic eccentricity of David Birrell and Rebecca O’Mara’s elderly (and actually dead) Nikolai and Yevgenia in contrast to the realism of the killing of some scenes. Polly Sullivan’s set adds its own comment in the candelabra hanging in her fairytale forest and the metres-long drawer pulled from the bank of filing cabinets that archive everything and everyone in Russia.

Though conceived before fake news and Trump and manipu­lating social media, this ambitious and intriguing play feels of the moment as it reminds us how easily the truth can be altered.

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