Review by Kate Gaul
Spitfire Theatre from Czech Republic appear at Edinburgh Fringe for the fourth time with a new work “The Last of the Soviets” based on the work of Belarusian investigative journalist, essayist and oral historian who writes in Russian, Svetlana Alexijevičová. The material deals with the most dramatic eras in the history of her country, such as the Second World War or the fall of the communist empire. Alexijevičová was awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature "for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time". She is the first writer from Belarus to receive the award.
Through dozens of interviews with witnesses, it offers an alternative form of the modern history of the former Soviet Union as seen by ordinary people.
Spirfire artistic director Petr Boháč. says "We have taken the theme of food and cooking and in a specific way we are cooking a cocktail of history and statements.” The unsettling cooking show is brought to the audience by a pair of presenters in a grotesque TV session. "They then become witnesses to the statement and destroy themselves more and more. And the 'fashion' beginning becomes a certain destruction of the personality," revealed Boháč. Behind a table with various food and beverage items the actors make their speeches into microphones and use a small camera to create scenarios. The scenarios are made using closeups of the props in increasingly nightmarish ways. The company notes that the live cinematic elements are inspired by the works of employing puppet Jan Švankmajer – that’s a name you don’t hear too often!
Given the current situation in Ukraine the production takes on a unique relevance and interest.
"We were scared when we played for the first time after the war started. We couldn't believe how much it was the same case as all the previous ones," noted dancer and performer Roman Zotov-Mikšin. In her books, Alexijevicová focuses on the war in Afghanistan, where Soviet soldiers were deployed, or the great patriotic war against Germany. The chilling testimony of the text is relayed with little emotion. It covers the recall from witnesses of war, the Chernobyl disaster, the collapse of the USSR. The artists reveal the cruelty of Soviet life with occasional dark humour.
During the performance we are offered caviar on bread and some lucky guests get vodka and cucumber – it is a cooking show after all. Glasses are smashed, violence is seemingly perpetrated, life and death are presented as trivial events. Some audience members found it hard going. The coolness of the delivery could never match the degree of atrocity that has been perpetrated. In the small hot and stuffy Zoo Playground venue it felt as if we were a cabal witnessing a secret message from a world we could never know. The fascination factor drives audiences to the production and mostly we leave with a history lesson we cannot forget.