Culture

Nightlands review – talking through what’s become of Russia

Who exactly is the enemy currently laying waste to Ukraine? There was a time the answer would have been easy. Those of us who grew up on this side of the iron curtain were schooled to see the old USSR as a dictatorship, an unyielding empire hell-bent on protecting its interests. There was no ambiguity in such an adversary.

But three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, supposedly a triumph for the west, the nature of Putin’s Russia is harder to determine. For all the free-market values ushered in since perestroika, this is a country – and a president – on which the old ideology still exerts a force. Those shaped by communism have reason to believe democracy did not bring them all they were promised.

And if that sounds a lot to load on to two characters, one embodying Stalinist doctrine, the other standing for rootless youth, well, it is, but playwright Jack MacGregor makes a decent stab at it. His play is heavy with research, at times more of a dialectical argument than a drama (it could transfer seamlessly to radio), but it is also an intelligent attempt at describing how all of us are shaped by the forces of history.

His setting is Pyramiden, a model village in Svalbard, now deserted but once a Soviet research base on Norwegian territory. Here, as the polar night approaches and the Arctic storms kick off, Rebecca Wilkie’s Slava arrives as backup for Matthew Zajac’s Sasha, a security guard. They have a lot of time to talk and a lot of talk to be done, both actors hitting the text with energy and passion in MacGregor’s production for Dogstar.

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It is a moot point whether this isolated outpost is a wasteland or some kind of utopia, but even in its emptiness, it holds memories of global power struggles. Sasha, no longer recognising the Russia of today, looks cynically at a world divided by different brands of capitalism. Slava, who was 15 when the USSR dissolved, is more ambivalent, but is defined by memories of her own.

If the two of them are more conduits than fully fleshed characters, they nonetheless show how our values are forged by political circumstance and remind us that it pays to know your enemy.

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