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Review: Sun Line, at Lilian Bayliss Studio, Sadler’s Wells

Russian stage and screen performers turn the air a dark shade of blue with dynamite performances in scathing comedy about a broken marriage

20 December, 2018 — By Leo Garib

Yulia Peresild and Andrey Burkovsky in Sun Line

I LOVE to hear people swear in Russian. Effing and blinding can be truly beautiful in the rolling language of poetry, smoky incantations and opera. Certainly more poetic than the coarse profanities of football-terrace English.

So, when the director of a highly-touted Russian play is compelled to make a pre-show safety warning that it contains some seriously choice language, you know you’re in for a treat.

“Anyone likely to be offended should leave now,” announced Viktor Ryzhakov with a twinkle. The woman next to me, one of the many Russian expats in the audience, chuckled at his little joke.

In Soviet times, censors tasked with defending against degeneracy could redact obscenities from public art. Perestroika quieted them a little, but Putin has sharpened their blue pencils with new regulations.

No concerns, however, for playwright Ivan Vyrypaev, one of Russia’s most avant-garde bad-boy writers, and by Moscow’s legendary Meyerhold theatre, which has staged Sun Line.

“One more thing,” winked Ryzhakov as a mischievous after-thought. “Please leave your mobile phones switched on. You might receive the most important text of your life and it would be ludicrous if you couldn’t answer because you were stuck in a theatre. So hold your phone tight in your right hand.”

And hold onto your hats, he might have added, this was going to be an event.

Sun Line is a scathing two-handed husband and wife comedy about a broken marriage and a total failure of communications. Non-stop savagery between them, tenderness and sheer creative brilliance in the best tradition of radical Russian theatre. It’s already been short-listed for Russia’s top Golden Mask award.

Werner and Barbara are arguing. Relentlessly, violently, wonderfully. It’s getting on for 5 in the morning and they’ve been at it since 10 the night before. They’re punch drunk, tone deaf to eachother and rowing in ever-decreasing circles.

Clearly, after seven years, their marriage is on the rocks. Still, Werner points out, they are about to finish paying off their mortgage. They should be celebrating being finally unyoked from the bank, finally being able to afford to have a child. But at 40 years old, Barbara knows that boat has sailed. Besides, the seven-year itch has well and truly bitten them and there’s more chance they’ll start a bare-knuckle bust-up. Which, by the end of the play, they do.

Highly respected Russian stage and screen performers Yulia Peresild and Andrey Burkovsky are dynamite. They first appear head to toe in beige – or, rather, greige. Everything, including their handful of props, is the same warmed-over colour of yesterday’s porridge. They could be any couple, their marriage every marriage.

All Barbara wants, so she says, is for Werner to call her his gem. But he can’t and their car crash of a row, punctuated by soft moments that go disastrously wrong, spirals into a crazily comic fist-fight. It’s a cliché but definitely not bathos. They fire their lines like machine-gun bullets – lines as ribald as the best of Chaucer, as disconcerting as Harold Pinter at his darkest.

He finally mouths the words but only when they have, quite madly, decided to role-play as other people: he his cousin who, quite randomly, has trekked across the country to find her; she her own cousin, on the toilet evacuating a stomach full of over-ripe cherries.

Their last act is to flip the vast table-cum-platform which is centre-stage. On the other side, it’s a mirror reflecting the audience back at itself. You want to laugh at Werner and Barbara? You’re laughing at yourself.

“I wanted to explore the ways in which people are prevented from making real contact with one another,” said Vyrypaev in an interview. “Some are banal; when we don’t hear, and constantly interrupt each other. Others are more significant; when we experience reality in a completely different way.”

“The play is therapeutic,” he reassured. “A couple watching the play might identify and see these struggles worked through for themselves.”

Therapeutic? Phew! It’s cruel, comedic, excoriating – Pinter, Samuel Beckett, Mike Leigh and a pinch of Chaucer pushed into a blender. Darkly, cynically, beautifully Russian.

The language had turned the air a very dark shade of blue. The woman next to me, a Russian well into her seventies, assured me the surtitle translations were very good, and smiled impishly.

Vyrypaev thrives on challenging audiences with outrageous situations and language, giving the finger to Russia’s good-taste police. Just 44 years old, he is the latest in the country’s unparalleled line of artistic greats. Last year he got clean away with demanding an artistic boycott of Putin, and still his star rises and rises. The legacy of Meyerhold and the other geniuses of revolutionary Russia are in safe, if grubby, hands.

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