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Life and Fate: Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg

Life and Fate
Life and Fate

Life and Fate is a Russian epic in my view the 20th century’s version of War and Peace, written by Vasily Grossman in 1960 it could just as well be called Love and Death. It has been adapted for the stage by Lev Dodin, Russia’s greatest theatre director since Stanislavsky. He has put his team – Maly Drama Theatre of St Petersburg – through three years of rehearsals. Each cast member has read the 1,000-page novel twenty times. They have visited a labour camp in Siberia and slept overnight in the bunk beds at Auschwitz in Poland. So this is about as serious and full on as it gets. Take this opportunity to see – and just as exhilaratingly hear them in Russian – at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until May 2oth.

Just as Tolstoy centred War and Peace around the 1812 battle of Borodino against The French so Life and Fate focuses on the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942 against The Germans. But being Jewish Vasily Grossman added a third factor. Caught between this titanic ideological struggle for world power were The Jews of Eastern Europe and Russia. To dramatize this we meet the nuclear physicist Viktor Shtrum and his family. Sergey Kuryshev is superb as Viktor, torn three ways between his loyalties to Russia, Science and his Jewishness. Viktor is saved from banishment to death in Siberia only because Stalin needs him to develop the nuclear bomb. The highlight of the evening is when Viktor takes the phone call from Stalin himself. Viktor is a man transformed. His first thought is to open a bottle and make love to his wife. Lev Dodin makes this contrast between love and death a motif of the evening.

Alexey Poray- Koshit’s stage is dominated by a diagonal grill which acts variously as a volleyball net, a fence at both the Siberian labour camp and Auschwitz as well as a wall surrounding the Warsaw Ghetto. It’s a brilliant stage device. It allows us to see the equivalences between the camps both Soviet and Nazi. This is further highlighted by the roll calls and marches the inmates are made to endure, same shit different regimes. The Love and Death contrast is brilliantly evoked by the placing of a metal bed frame in the shape of a cage in front of the grid. So we see a naked couple in a cage making love as inmates look on from behind the grid. The message is clear. The instinct to make love and survive no matter what the situation will triumph in the end. Just as Grossman’s novel managed to finds its way to the West, via the brave Jewish physicist Andrei Sakharov and find a Swiss publisher in 1980.

Tatiana Shestakova gives a wonderful performance as Viktor’s mother Anna Shtrum. She comes to the front of the stage at key moments and speaks in heart-wrenchingly powerful ways about the loss of her son and her impending death at Auschwitz. But again Loves wins out. As she says “… my love will always be with you. Live, live forever “. Life and Fate ends with one of the most haunting scenes I have ever seen enacted on a stage. A team of naked young men playing brass instruments as they march into the gas chamber. War and Peace, Love and Death, Life and Fate, it’s all there on stage at the Theatre Royal Haymarket.

4 stars

Review by John O’Brien

Banned because of the parallels it drew between Nazism and Soviet Communism, Life and Fate, is a sweeping panorama of Soviet Society and an epic tale of a country told through the fate of a single Jewish family, the Shtrum’s. From Nazi concentration camps to the Gulags of Siberia and the Soviet nuclear programme, as the battle of Stalingrad looms large the characters must work out their destinies in a world torn by ideological tyranny and war.

This critically acclaimed production, winner of the Golden Mask for best play, has toured around the world since its première in 2007, shining a light on the heart of 20th-century darkness.

Life and Fate
Theatre Royal, Haymarket
11th – 20th May 2018


  • John OBrien

    JOHN O’BRIEN born in London in 1960 is a born and bred Londoner. His mother was an illiterate Irish traveller. His early years were spent in Ladbroke Grove. He was born at number 40 Lancaster Road. In 1967 the family was rehoused in Hackney. He attended Brooke House School for Boys in Clapton, - as did Lord Sugar. He became head boy and was the first person in his family to make it to university, gaining a place at Goldsmiths College in 1978. He took a degree in Sociology and a PGCE . From 1982 until 1993 he taught at schools in Hackney and Richmond. In 1984-85 he attended Bristol University where he gained a Diploma in Social Administration. From 1985 until 1989 he studied part-time in the evenings for a degree in English Literature at Birkbeck College. He stayed on at Birkbeck from 1990-1992 to study for an MA in Modern English Literature. He left teaching in 1993 and has worked as a tutor, researcher, writer and tour guide. He leads bespoke guided tours on London’s history, art , architecture and culture. He has attended numerous courses at Oxford University - Exeter College, Rewley House & Kellogg College. In London, he attends courses at Gresham College, The National Gallery, The British Museum, The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, The British Academy and The Royal Society. Read the latest London theatre reviews by all reviewers.

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