If you’re looking for a light-hearted trip to the theatre Life and Fate isn’t it — but don’t stop reading. Vasily Grossman’s 1960 novel, set in Stalinist Russia in 1943 with the backdrop of Nazi Germany, was seized by the KGB before its publication. Banned because of the parallels it drew between Nazism and Soviet Communism, it nonetheless survived and has become celebrated for its powerful views of wartime Russia and its unflinching honesty. It was first published in 1980 to critical acclaim.
Adapted for the stage for the first time, Life and Fate premiered in Paris in 2007. The award-winning Maly Drama Theatre of St Petersburg famously rehearsed for three years before performing to an audience, cast members were expected to read the novel multiple times and even stayed overnight in a concentration camp to understand the story viscerally.
The London premiere took place this week at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, a fittingly imposing venue for such an epic and grim play. A three-and-a-half-hour spectacle, performed in Russian (with surtitles on three strategically placed screens above the stage) this is not for the faint-hearted.
The story ostensibly centres on Jewish academic Victor Shtrum and his family (wife, daughter, sister-in-law) but there are four main storylines, all connected in some way (and all connected with the Shtrums).
The play opens and closes with Victor’s mother reading a letter to her son, detailing her forced move to the ghetto. She returns throughout the play and we learn more about the process of dehumanising the Jews, locking them away, neighbours taking their belongings, rations consisting of “no milk, no bread, the only vegetables, potatoes”.
Victor is renowned for his work in theoretical physics but when we meet him he is being silently demoted at work, uninvited to meetings and dinners, while colleagues with “Jewish last names” are being relocated or fired.
Political prisoners in a labour camp talk about Communism and Socialism, aligning communist ideals with Nazi ideology.
Gaunt men in blue-and-white striped pyjamas occupy the Nazi camp. Forced to number off, march and sing, their songs act as a haunting, choral punctuation mark.
Throughout the play, there are always two scenes playing at once. The action occurs in the foreground, but the previous scene remains on stage, reminding us how connected all these threads are. We cannot watch Victor have dinner in his apartment with openly antisemitic colleagues, without the memory of the concentration camps behind him.
We cannot hear Victor’s mother tell of the Jews walking in the middle of the road to the ghetto while their non-Jewish neighbours watch and leer, without seeing Victor’s daughter sitting on the stage, her fate as-yet unknown. Grossman shows how slow, slow, small changes, enforced ideologies and lost freedoms can lead to a reality of genocide and labour camps.
Watching a play in a foreign language is a unique experience. The emotional and dramatic nature of Russian, however, lends itself particularly well to the themes of political dissidence, war, death, love and despair.
You need a moment to catch your breath after watching this play — and I’m not sure how the company managed three years of rehearsals let alone subsequent years of performances — but it is a play worth seeing and a story worth hearing.