At the wonderful, modest Old Red Lion Theatre, above the famous pub in Islington, North London, is a genius play by a 29-year-old, Moses Raine, directed by his not much older, equally skilled sister, Nina Raine. Donkey Heart is a Chekhovian drama set in contemporary Russia – a little comic, a lot wistful, with an undercurrent of past terrors gently meandering though its two acts.
The pub theatre seats fewer than 60, so the players sometimes almost brush against the knees of those in the two front rows (at right angles to each other) of the audience. The intimacy works, because the actors, who vary in age from 11 or 12 to (I’m guessing) 60, so believe in their roles that they can play them credibly while being able to feel the breath of some of the audience – there are times when their faces and bodies are as close to those of the audience as to their fellow cast-members.
It takes place in a flat in Moscow with a shifting population of nine – though it housed almost double that number in the recent Bad Old Days before the end of the Soviet Union. Raine has written a play that sensitively looks at how difficult life and love are for the young in today’s Russia, while making it clear that at least some of the problems of the young ones are a hangover from the much worse problems faced by their parents and grandparents. It’s Chekhovian in that it doesn’t preach or shout, but makes its points with subtle humour and delicate irony. The actors are marvels, from the young boys who alternate in the role of Kolya to the grandfatherly Patrick Godfrey.
The story is precipitated by the visit from England of Thomas, who met there and is in love with the young woman, Sasha, daughter, granddaughter and sibling of the flat’s permanent occupiers. Mr Raine has had the brilliant idea – and it works – that “when the Russian character speak English to Thomas it is spoken with a Russian accent. When the Russian characters talk among themselves they speak English with no accent.”
Nina Raine is herself an accomplished playwright and director, and she has seen to it that her cast has mastered this dialogue trick, so that the audience always knows exactly who can understand whom – which is sometimes crucial to following events.
As I said: genius. The run ends in a couple of days. The question, I’d say. Is only where and when will it transfer. It’s good enough to play at the National Theatre (and Faber must agree, as they’ve already published it); and I hope it will transfer with the superb original cast. In fact, I think the play will be even better on a larger stage in a larger auditorium. Much though I enjoyed the intimacy of this première production, I think it will actually benefit from what we, in the 60s and 70s, used to call “aesthetic distance.”