Throughout 2008, Sydney saw an endless parade of war-themed theatre. This interest, behaving like a genuine trauma, spanned dance, performance and text-based productions alike. Yet more often than not, war in Sydney was discussed the way sex is discussed by 14-year-old virgins: it was simultaneously everything and nothing, an undefined cloud of experience, its consequences both all-encompassing and unreal.
The Promise, a three-act three-hander by Aleksei Arbuzov dating from 1965, may or may not be one such thing. Despite being written in the aftermath of the Second World War, it sometimes looks like it was written by an Australian adolescent. Yet it also definitely of its time and place. It is a strange little work of lyrical social realism, always teetering on the edge of cliché, but a cliché that isn’t quite ours. Set in an apartment in Leningrad during the siege in 1942, it looks at the unravelling friendship between Marat, the boy who returns to his abandoned family flat to find Lika, a 15-year-old girl hiding there (having burnt all their furniture for heat), and Leonidik, who sneaks in hungry and alone. The same apartment is revisited in 1946 and the New Year of 1960, at the end of the war and thirteen years later. Still hanging around, now legitimately occupying the premises, these war orphans are trying to grow into adults.
It is, on the surface, a very simple play, and so are its flaws. Arbuzov looks at the disillusionment of mid-life with the judgemental eye of an adolescent. It is a charming, but frighteningly sentimental play for much of its duration: a love triangle in which the meaning of life, what happened to our dreams?, who loves whom, and similar issues are discussed with very straight faces. It is not a poetic play; the word that comes to mind instead is exact; its melodrama is stodgy, not frivolous. There are moments of juvenile humour, of immature seriousness adolescents are so prone to, and of midlife sentimentality. It is a difficult play to watch for this reason; the writing does not speak for itself. It gives voice to the age of its characters perhaps too accurately. They fall in love and suffer from the meaninglessness of peace with exclamation marks throughout.
Yet under Simon Stone’s confident direction, it looks like a village band tuned into the municipal orchestra. It is, first of all, tremendously beautiful. Belvoir is hosting a production by an almost all-Melbourne team, and it looks and feels like something Melbourne would be very fond of. Adam Gardnir’s set is pared back to a rotating square of parquetry, on which Stone paints an exquisite atmosphere with three extraordinary actors and Hamish Michael’s nuanced and rich sound. Allison Bell, Chris Ryan and Ewen Leslie play the three unsuccessful adults with a streamlined simplicity. Directed with elegance and restraint which keeps the melodrama in check, it is an accomplished piece of well-made theatre. Tasteful above all, perhaps. If the opening night comments were anything to go by, Sydney will appreciate it.
Yet Arbuzov was not a teenager. He was in his late fifties when he wrote the play, and what looks like juvenile simplification may well be the clarity of old age.The Promise depicts dilemmas which, while grandiose, are nonetheless very real: Lika, Marat and Leonidik are haunted by the megalomania of their own survival. Staying alive at the price of a million dead, what can they do with their lives that could ever be enough? Having forged the sort of friendship that only happens in times of complete catastrophe, how can they keep honouring it in the time of peace? They are three giants, trying to squeeze back into the everyday-sized shoes, and their various failures (trauma, alcoholism, lethargy, escapism or meanness) surprise them as shamefully out of whack with the first act of their lives. As Stone points out in the program, it mirrors the last bout of optimism in the Soviet Union, during Khrushchev’s reign, which would soon dissolve into the usual post-war anticlimax. After an event that brought out the titan in everyone, quotidian littleness is harder to accept than usual, more dispiriting. A lot of larger-than-life behaviour in the play (the grand gestures of generosity, of self-sacrifice), which add the melodramatic tinge, could be seen as tics from this mythical time.
Australia in 2009, however, is not one foot out of the age of heroes. I’m not sure what remains of the experience of this play. Certainly, the simple and effective beauty of the production, the brave economy of theatrical means with which it tells of the love triangle and of growing old and less than majestic. However, to paraphrase Chuck Palahniuk, ours is the disappointment of children who were told they would all grow up to be rock stars. It is not the same thing as the staggering trauma of an experience that cost so much, without even ennobling us for life. It is only Leslie’s extraordinary performance, which digs deep into PTSD and taciturn, back-breaking self-sacrifice, that gives the necessary gravitas to the story and a satisfactory finish.
As things are, I am absolutely in two minds about the production. I am not entirely sure that Arbuzov’s text is clear about the point it wants to make, nor that this production finds it. Writing only fifteen years after the end of the worst war yet, Arbuzov didn’t need to press his conclusions, explain his motives. Certain things would have been self-evident the way they are not now, not here. Herein lies the contradiction in my reaction. I am not sure that this production, which settles for calm and restrained beauty, keeping a lid on the melodrama rather than digging it for the grandiose, futile gestures that it makes, gets to the heart of the matter. It is beautiful; absolutely. Trivial; perhaps. Profound; perhaps. I recognise what it tries to say. I am not sure it does. It may. It may not. See it for yourself. It is worth your while.
The Promise. Original Play by Alexei Arbuzov. New Verision by Nick Dear. Based on the Translation by Ariadne Nicolaeff. Directed by Simon Stone. Set Designer: Adam Gardnir. Costume Designer: Mel Page. Lighting Designer: Niklas Pajanti. Composer & Sound Designer: Hamish Michael. Sound Consultant: Steve Francis. Fight Coreographer: Gavin Robins. Stage Manager: Luke McGettigan. Assistant Stage Manager: Mel Dyer. With Alison Bell, Ewen Leslie and Chris Ryan. Belvoir Street Theatre, July 15 – August 23.