Into The Whirlwind @ Noel Coward Theatre

Written for

Based on Eugenia Ginzburg’s 1967 book Journey Into The Whirlwind, Russian powerhouse Sovremennik’s first offering examines the horrifying effects of Stalinist tyranny on all who stood in its path, and most upsettingly, even those who didn’t.

By far the most political piece Sovremennik brings to London this season it is a fascinating look into this bloody period of Russian history (and an interesting one to pick in the face of the apparent closing of Russia’s contemporary Iron Fist). Ginzburg’s tale of her imprisonment marries the factual knowhow of a historian (she was a history professor before becoming a journalist) with the flair of a poet. Wince inducing facts and figures are packaged in a mixture of lyrical phrases, which fly around ones head like butterflies for hours after.

Ginzburg cleverly underscores these atrocities with a determined wit, always reminding us that these are women, not numbers. There is much gallows humour in this tragedy and she unsentimentally shows humanity’s capability for survival through this coarse laughter.

It is in these cramped prison cell scenes where Sovremennik’s impeccable skill at detailed ensemble work is shown to its best advantage. Even the smallest roles have been intricately studied and the lead voices are rich with subtle complexity, with Marina Khazova’s broken spirit particularly compelling. But to fully appreciate this vivid tapestry you need to sit very close and with the surtitles as a further distraction it is easy to miss the delicate cadences this company have worked for so many years to create.

Despite having placed this story within Mikhail Frenkel’s epic cage set, Galina Volchek has pulled intensely introverted performances from her actors. There are some stunning stage images here (the final one in particular bringing a lump to the throat) and one of the most powerful moments of oppression comes from Vladislav Vetrov’s languid physical brutalisation of Marina Neelova’s Ginzburg.

But this journey is told through the eyes and whispered words of each performer. It’s a powerful story that needs to be heard, but you will need to sit close to these story tellers to get the full force of their quiet artistry.