On entering the Southwark Playhouses’ ‘Large’ theatre this week, I found it transformed into a cold and unwelcoming space. The theatre is playing host to the first London adaptation of The Love Girl and The Innocent in thirty years and the audience has been thrust to the centre of the centre of the action.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s play is billed as a love story but the story touches a range of issues around life in a 1940s communist work camp. It’s an interesting setting for a love story. A soldier, imprisoned for misdemeanours on the front line, falls for a woman he meets in prison. She is a ‘lovegirl’ – a woman who uses her sexuality to her advantage, having relationships with men at camp who are able to offer her better conditions. But despite the title of the play, much of the stage time is dedicated to other storylines, the love affair is just one of many elements.
The more interesting parts of this play were those dealing more generally with life inside the camp. A key theme is the desperate lengths people will go to in order to survive. Several characters have the chance to step forward and tell their stories, and there are a number of scenes dealing with the power struggles and desperate actions of the camp inmates. The prisoners struggle to gain more powerful roles within camp, and secure themselves better living conditions. This storyline alone is strong enough to hold the play through its two hour duration. As prisoners pledge allegiance to different leaders and attempt to overthrow each other, it builds a real feeling of how hopeless it is to simply work hard or stay uninvolved, when the entire system is corrupt, no-one can succeed through goodness alone.
…I was glad of the compressed telling of the love story…
The love story itself seems somewhat shallow – much like Romeo & Juliet, the characters ‘fall in love’ over a short period of time, and at much danger to themselves. The love doesn’t have much chance to develop and a relatively small amount of stage time is devoted to this story. However given all the more interesting stories developing within the play, I was glad of the compressed telling of the love story, with such a dark and interesting setting for the play, there are many more interesting stories to be told.
The staging was a difficult element of this play, the original screenplay calls for several ambitious sets, including multi-storey construction sites, a foundry, and scenes with hundreds of new prisoners arriving. A variety of techniques were used; each new scene was introduced with a description of where it takes place. This simple technique went a long way towards giving the audience an impression of the events unfolding.
…a dramatic introduction to the harsh realities of the camp setting…
The physical staging of the play felt somewhat overcomplicated; a set of wooden crates were moved around between each scene to give a vague sense of where buildings stood, or what was interior and exterior. However, the physical moving of these props was loud on the exposed floors and somewhat distracting as several cast members manoeuvred them into position. The end result didn’t seem to justify the means, with the complex movements simply serving to supplement the read descriptions of place.
There were however, a few inspired uses of props and lighting. The play utilised exterior doors at the theatre, using lighting to give the impression of trucks and trains pulling up just outside to unload fresh prisoners. In one scene a row of wall-mounted lights became a bank of communal showers. The sight of the newly arrived prisoners stripping naked and ‘showering’ under red lights created a dramatic introduction to the harsh realities of the camp setting. Several key moments in the play were executed with great cinematic impact, particularly towards the end of the play when events escalate towards a conclusion.
…the performances of the cast were polished and convincing…
It’s worth noting that the company staging the play had lost their key actress to illness just two days before opening night. A replacement actress had been drafted in with just hours to go, and was on book for the first performance. Despite this drama behind the scenes the performances of the cast were polished and convincing. Even the lead actress having a script on stage didn’t distract from the power of some of the lines delivered.
This is by no means just a love story, and some of the plots and themes are difficult to deal with, making for a somewhat intense experience. It’s a very interesting setting for a play and different to anything else I’ve seen. While elements of the staging and plot development were less than perfect, it was an interesting play and well worth watching; if not for its love story, then for the brutal themes behind it.