Nazis and Latvian Politics: Remembrance Day at The Royal Court Theatre

A band of merry playgoers from ATC HQ were lucky enough to catch Remembrance Day at The Royal Court last weekend.  The play in question is part of the international playwrights’ season at in the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, and centres on – wait for it – the politics of Latvia.  Possibly not the most promising of subjects on the face of it.  Too often have I seen productions which produce a notion of ‘political’ which seems biased, heavy-handed, obtuse or in worst cases just plain dull.  Take the National Theatre’s recent production of Büchner’s Danton’s Death, centering on the French Revolution’s year of terror in 1794It was strong in design and sense of place, but the script itself, translated by a usually top-notch Howard Brenton, was cut-down to its bare bones.  It focused the action exclusively on the main protagonists, removing the public scenes of the original text: the huge Olivier stage felt empty and underused.  It was all rather wordy and sombre.

But not so in the case of Remembrance Day.  The script focuses on a Russian-Latvian family living in a tower-block, next door to the ailing grandfather of the family who fought against the Nazis on behalf of Russia in the second world war.  Down the corridor from this family lives another ailing old man – but this time a Latvian one – who fought against the Russians during the war. It is a little know fact, and quite a shocking one, that the Latvian people joined forces with the Nazis in the war to fend off the Russians.  Their allegiance was formed in a desperate attempt to defend their home land rather than because of connection with Nazi propaganda, never-the-less the idea still remains a potentially chilling one.  The ‘Remembrance Day’ of the title refers to the (now abolished) annual festival day when the Latvian Legion commemorates their history. 

What is so expertly handled in Michael Longhurt’s play, written by Aleksey Scherbak, is the delicacy with which these issues are explored, without feeling in any way sensationalised.  The play is finely translated into English by Rory Mullarkey, and the set design and very British actors play the family scenes as if they come from a contemporary home anywhere in the UK.  This makes for an uncanny feeling of familiarity with the family.  Indeed, if you were not aware of the setting, the fact that these people are actually speaking Russian and live in Latvia would not be apparent until further along in the play when the brother runs off to do his English homework.  The political argument between the radical pro-Russian faction and the more liberal view is played out in this domestic relationship between daughter and her father.  The father is equally concerned with his daughter’s possible sexual relationship with the radical political group leader as he is with her hard-line political stance against the Latvian celebrations.  This is a recognisable exploration of family dynamics as much as it is a subtle exposition on contemporary politics.  The familiarity this creates between audience and stage is the strength of this production.

This dramaturgical technique of exploring the foreign with the known, understood and personal cuts at the heart of the political issues it explores.  The Latvian and Russian-Latvian factions, it argues, are just two communities who are essentially very similar: German allegiance was a lamentable past occurrence but should be forgiven and moved past in the present situation.  The audience is cleverly maneuvered to replay and reinforce this argument by the intimate connection they are invited to have with the foreign family they watch on stage.  The beautiful set design (well done Tom Scutt)reinforces this equality: the kitchen table, centre of the domestic world, acts as table for both the Russian-Latvian family and their Latvian neighbour, who takes part in the Remembrance Day celebration in full Waffen SS garb. 

The pivotal moment, beautifully designed and played, comes at the centre of the play as the leader of the Latvian movement, and the leader of the Russian-Latvian opposition movement, meet and shake hands in the corridor of the tower block as they are making their visits to local residents.  As they walk on stage from either end they look almost identical in costume and mannerisms.  They walk towards each other, and one expects a political show down between the two.  But in actual fact they jovially discuss the best printing companies to get cheap pamphlets made, and their various domestic situations.  These two men are playing the political game but do not actually feel any real hatred to each other.  Shocking as it is, the production makes the point that this antagonism between the two sides is revved up by self-interest as much as political beliefs. 

Rory Mullarkey and ACT@ATC

This production was beautifully presented and sensitively produced.  But even it cannot escape the political problems it so articulately discusses.  We took our group ACT@ATC to talk to Rory Mullarkey who translated the play.  He said that in some areas of the Latvian press there is a strong distrust of the play, and some voices have suggested that it is creating a biased image of Latvia to the English.  A warning that these issues are still very much alive: and one which is perhaps echoed in the play’s resolution.  The daughter Anya, brilliantly portrayed by Ruby Bentall, finally discovers that even the leader of her own party does not feel as ardently as she does about Russian-Latvian politics.  She is left taking the situation into her own hands, loading up her grandfather’s gun from the second world war.  Her journey towards fundamentalism is complete.  The play begs understanding and maturity on both sides of the political debate, but does not create such an easy resolution in its own conclusion.  It’s a haunting piece of work which will stay with you for a long time.