Not-a-review: Pagans, Royal Court

“What’s an agnostic?”

Last up in the set of rehearsed readings for the International Playwrights Season was the play Pagans by Ukrainian Anna Yablonskaya. This reading was overlaid with great sadness when it was revealed that the playwright was killed in the Moscow Domodedovo Airport bombing on 24th January 2011 on her way to collect a prize for the screenplay of this very play. It had been scheduled well before her tragic death and the decision was never in doubt to continue with it as a beautiful tribute to her life and work.

Directed by Simon Godwin and translated from the Russian in which she wrote by Rory Mullarkey, Pagans follows the impact of the return of Natalya Stepanovna, long-estranged from her son Oleg, on his family, in particular his over-worked wife Marina and awkward university-dropout daughter Kristina, and other people in their life. They are all non-believers but she is fervently religious and though they are initially sceptical of her desire to bring Jesus into their lives to save them, they soon find out that the Lord (or is it Natalya) works in mysterious ways.

It is hard to be truly objective about someone’s writing knowing that they have passed away, and with it being in such a horrific manner and so recently there’s an added sensitivity, but in this 90 minute play it was clear to see why the Royal Court team were so excited by working with her. Her writing for her female characters in particular was extremely strong, giving voice to a full-rounded portrayal of different generations of modern Russian women, Helen Schlesinger being particularly stunning here as the acerbic Marina and Isabella Laughland finding a quiet beauty in Kristina’s tortured soul.

But Yablonskaya also extends this to her older characters and so Natalya, played brilliantly by Annette Badland, though ostensibly an interfering busybody is given a beautiful warmth and genuine humanity. Dealing with matters of religion and questions of faith this way with such a disarming lack of scepticism or patronising of the characters, Peter Polycarpou’s Bosun was another example of this, was most interesting to see and quite the rarity in terms of new writing especially in this country, making Pagans a most fascinating piece.

So a great tribute to Yablonskaya’s talent but also to the diligent efforts of Associate Director Elyse Dodgson whose tireless work in supporting and nurturing playwrights from all around the world is a truly marvellous and inspiring thing and her influence in promoting the production of overseas work here in the UK should not be underestimated. I have loved the variety of theatrical voices that have been on show here and combined with the opportunity to see some top talent reading them too, it has made it an unmissable few weeks: the next season will be eagerly anticipated.

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