“Heavy” is a word which could easily be used to describe most of Stephen Sewell’s work, and 1979’s Traitors is no exception. But it is by no means simply a dismal, worthy text. In fact, one easily forgets what a strong, albeit black, sense of humour Sewell has, and his ability to portray humanity in extremis is powerful indeed (if one can forget egregious missteps such as The United States of Nothing).
As openly political and uncompromising as ever, this early work of Sewell’s takes us through the lives of some intriguing characters awash in horrifying yet fascinating times. It chiefly depicts the affair of two unknowingly opposed Russian communists during Stalin’s consolidation of despotic power in 1927. Anna (Pip Smith) is a Trotskyist who meets Giorgi Krasin (Costa Ronin), a member of the Cheka, a precursor of the KGB.
Cue a fair bit of nudity and torture.
Harrowing though all this is, the inspired aspect of Sewell’s portrayal of these horrors is that we largely see them from the perspective of the somewhat reluctant perpetrator. One’s automatic temptation to empathise with one of the main protagonists of a story is normal, but when the individual in question is performing such despicable acts and you still feel for him… Needless to say, it can be quite disturbing.
Yet these intense scenes of Stalinist oppression are some time in arriving, and much of the preceding parts of the play are concerned with Anna and involve a lot of discussion about the politics of the time, which will be either intriguing or possibly a bit dry depending on your level of interest in Soviet political history. By any measure though, one gets a very strong sense of the deeply dangerous, mistrustful times in which the play is set, long before we even meet anyone from the Cheka.
Although not exceptional, this is a very good production, and another highly appropriate inclusion in New Theatre’s 75th Anniversary season. Barry French directs a strong cast who fully commit to populating Sewell’s bleak world. John Grinston is well cast as the paranoid Lebeshev, Krasin’s old comrade and current superior who continually oscillates between cajoling and threatening. It is a wonderfully creepy performance. Sandra Campbell pushes the limits of caricature perhaps a little far as the busybody Mother Dybenko, but is a delight to watch nevertheless.
Peter Buck Dettmann as the prisoner Rubin and the aforementioned Smith are both very strong in their respective scenes and provide the play with somewhat more approachable personalities than many of the other, more extreme characters. Smith is, to all intents and purposes, playing the lead role, and does a fine job of it.
Also worthy of special note is Helen Scaysbrook as Anna’s friend Ekaterina. With mostly just short play credits to her name, Scaysbrook is quite a find, delivering a beautifully understated, naturalistic performance in a seemingly small role that ultimately bears greater significance. In particular she very convincingly charts the character’s progression from a naive girl to a hardened loyalist in the play’s framing flashforward to 1941.
However, the standout in this production is definitely Ronin as Krasin, a dashing and highly emotive actor who looks like he stepped right out of a period film. The fact that he’s actually Russian probably helps. In fact, it initially seems almost odd (especially if you don’t know why) that he is the only actor in this play set entirely in Russia who speaks in a Russian accent, as Sewell wrote the play in more or less the Australian idiom. But this is largely superficial, as it is Ronin’s sexy, dangerous stage presence that really takes this production to the next level.
The prolific Tom Bannerman has created a very interesting, moody set, but seems for once to be a little disadvantaged by the limitations, or rather, lack of limitations of the performance space. The New’s large stage does some slight disservice to this generally very claustrophobic play which is chiefly comprised of scenes between two characters, but perhaps this is nitpicking.
Once again, New Theatre tackles the classics of political theatre with great conviction. Traitors is a powerful, unsettling play and, perhaps, a timely one.
new theatre presents
by Stephen Sewell
Venue: new theatre | 542 King Street Newtown
Dates: 20 September – 27 October 2007
Times: Thursday – Saturday @ 8pm, Sunday @ 5pm
Tickets: $27 / $22 / $10 Preview Wednesday 19 September
Bookings: 1300 306 776 / www.mca-tix.com