Cockroaches

Sat 5th – Sat 12th August 2017

reviews

Sian Bayley

at 10:39 on 13th Aug 2017

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‘Cockroaches’ is Anastasiya Sosis’ translation of the original, uncensored version of Mikhail Bulgakov’s play ‘Flight’. It is a moving piece of theatre that follows the lives of five refugees fleeing Soviet rule in the last few days of the Russian Civil War, and is made particularly poignant by its resemblance to the modern-day refugee crisis. Sosis has previously spoken in great detail about her first-hand experience of the ongoing civil war in her home country, Ukraine, and gives this production a very personal angle that emphasises the pain of losing one’s home. The premise is undoubtedly compelling, but unfortunately the play is let down by some sub-par acting, which stunts the emotional pull of this production.

The tale of the abandoned Serafima Korzukhina (Anna Danshina) and the university professor Sergey Golubkov (Tom Byrne) is at the heart of the story, but often gets lost and confused amidst the other plotlines. Their tempestuous romance should hold the play together, but much of the dialogue is delivered in a flat monotone voice, devoid of feeling and with no real conviction; making the action easily forgettable. Combined with some historically inaccurate phrasing such as the use of ‘beef’ as a synonym for tension, as well as an awkward and often misplaced attempt at humour, this play fails to deliver on its promising concept.

I must confess that I know little about Bulgakov’s work, and had not heard of ‘Flight’, or its stage history, before this performance. It is clearly a very detailed and complex piece of theatre, and Sosis’ translation is accordingly rather lengthy, at just under two hours. I wonder, however, if the play might have benefited from being slightly shorter. Fringe shows tend to be around the hour mark, allowing audiences to watch several throughout the day. At nearly two hours long, ‘Cockroaches’ felt drawn out, and spectators were visibly flagging towards the end as they shuffled around in their seats.

What saves the production is the excellent use of music, sound, and lighting. Scenes are well transitioned, and the use of contemporaneous Russian music gives the performance an authentic feel. The use of the freeze frame as Serafima is taken away is carefully calculated and moving, enabling her to briefly kiss Sergey without him knowing. The cockroach race is likewise well staged as an impressive piece of physical theatre, proving that the directorial direction of this piece is clever and sophisticated - even if the acting is not always up to scratch. Overall, ‘Cockroaches’ is an important piece of theatrical work that uncovers a censored story. It is a moving tale with many parallels to today, but is not always convincingly performed on stage.

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Katherine Knight

at 12:00 on 13th Aug 2017

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As we enter the small, intimate theatre, we are greeted with a tableau. Two characters sit hunched over, upon suitcases in a dim light; a Slavic song murmurs in the background. The backdrop is littered with cockroaches. It’s an atmospheric start, and hopes are raised – unfortunately, the ensuing performance can’t quite live up to these initial aspirations. This is a play which has a lofty motive, but not quite the panache to pull it off.

The script is challenging, although the new translation, by writer Anastasia Sosis, does well in making this relatively accessible to a modern audience. The script contains moments of poetry, humour, and anger where necessary, without losing its sense of place – Europe in the time of the Russian Civil War. Although the play’s description on its website tries to parallel the context of Bulgakov’s original play (‘Flight’) with the situation in modern Ukraine, this is never made explicit in the performance itself. It just falls short of such moralism, and it’s difficult to make this play relevant when there are so many others at the Fringe solely about the plight of modern refugees. However, there is a definite sense of pathos in Sosis’ script, and she does commendably in her adaption.

Although there are some good character actors – Lucas Sokolowski in particular takes on roles with aplomb and makes the most of the smallest character – there are few who are able to truly connect with the audience, and instil any kind of genuine empathy. The notable exception is Kasper Klop, in the role of Roman Khludov, who infuses an insatiably sadistic character with a truly haunting demeanour. He first appears on stage with eyes glistening with tears, “I think I’m ill,” he coolly says, as the massacre he has ordered rages around him. “Terribly ill.” It’s a startling performance, and although others approach their roles with commendable energy, they are sometimes hard to distinguish - in part due to the confusing multi-roling. I did not realise, for example, that certain characters early in the script appeared later on.

Music is used sparingly, and primarily as a soundtrack – although, the use of regional songs as the characters move from city to city is a nice touch in the scene transitions. The polka which plays is a little caricatural, although the haunting melody which plays as Klop is lost in monologue does add to the haunting quality of the scene. There are some beautiful moments of symbolism, too; and although few and far between, they do make a definite impression. In parallel to the religious undertones, a freeze-frame in an otherwise naturalistic piece allows a rosary to be handed from one person to another, bestowing a kind of moral responsibility - if not something more sinister. There are also moments of staging which bestow an almost angelic symbolism: one character standing behind a sitting figure, illuminated by a red-hot light. At one point where the characters reach out I am reminded of a renaissance painting. The play is at its best in these moments, where time for a moment stops, and we are given a chance to feel.

This is a play of high ambitions – it’s difficult to bring such a piece to the stage and make it engaging, not to mention the play itself standing at 1 hour 50 minutes – the longest I have seen so far. As a piece, it doesn’t quite reach the heights it wishes to achieve, but the few beautiful moments which are interspersed throughout bring solace in the dark.

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