“They’re old men…
‘But they’re still Nazis.’”
The second half of the International Playwrights Season at the Royal Court shifts its focus to new Eastern European writing. I attended the first reading last week, of Pavel Pryazkho’s The Harvest, but the main show, playing upstairs, is Latvian-based playwright Aleksey Scherbak’s Remembrance Day, presented here in a translation by Rory Mullarkey.
On 16th March, veterans of the Latvian Legion of the Waffen SS march through the capital Riga, increasingly being joined by other native Latvians as a celebration of their national independence against Soviet oppression. The complicating factor though, being that in order to fight the Soviets, they had to align themselves with the Nazis. The march therefore is a focal point for tensions as both anti-fascist and fascist movements in the country seek to capitalise on the emotions provoked here to promote their own agendas. Sherbak’s play uses the tensions in a Russian-speaking family to explore this struggle as teenage Anya finds herself becoming more and more radicalised as a political activist whilst her father’s attempt to preach a calmer message of tolerance is misinterpreted and whips up an intense fervour of damaging extremism.
Though previous knowledge of the geo-politics of the area and Latvia in particular is by no means a prerequisite, I spent an amount of time studying in and around the area as a postgraduate and though I’ve forgotten a shocking amount of the stuff I learned back then, it did help to provide a most useful context to proceedings which do need to be considered to take in the full message of the play, in particular how the Latvian experience has been so very different to our own. This is a country where independence has never been taken for granted, where Latvian/Russian/Baltic/European factors all come into play in terms of any kind of national identity, exacerbated by a huge linguistic and cultural divide which persists with nearly 50% of the country’s population being made up of ethnically Russian groups, ie ‘non-Latvians’. So whereas in the UK, the idea of Remembrance Sunday is clearly defined and something the country (arguably) is united by, the same concept is fraught with unimaginable difficulties in a country which is still struggling to overcome its internal divisions and that is something that Scherbak is exploring here.
In neighbouring apartments, he places veterans from both sides, Anya’s Uncle Misha who fought for the Soviets and old Latvian comrades Valdis and Paulis who participate in the march yet whose motivations for joining up in the past are more complex than at first sight and than young Anya is willing uncover as that would go against the belief system she has adopted. And as her father’s appeal to end the protest over what he sees as ancient history gets twisted in him being accused of sympathising with the Nazis, raising the question of how long can we or should we hold onto the past.
Michael Longhurst’s direction is superb, using the same space to represent the three different apartments, reinforcing how little difference there really is between us all, aided in no small part by David Holmes’ lighting. And the acting is uniformly strong: Michael Nardone’s exasperated Sasha, seemingly unable to do right for doing wrong, was superb; Ruby Bentall’s self-righteous and ultimately misguided Anya is a powerful stage presence; there’s nice smaller contributions from Iwan Rheon and the excellent Michelle Fairley as the brother and mother of the family, and Luke Norris’ manipulative politician. And by no means, least, the veterans, Struan Rodger, Ewan Hooper and Sam Kelly brought irascible humour and humanity to these old-timers still confronting the issues they fought for so long ago.
Remembrance Day is a little too short to fully do justice to the issues that it raises and the characters that it sets up so well, wearing its loyalty to Sasha’s point of view over Anya’s a little too obviously, given the complexity of the situation. But Scherbak also points up lots of nicely observed contrasts, sometimes realistic, sometimes satirical, which reflect the contradictions that lie at the heart of this society. Anya’s staunch nationalism and inwards-looking focus stands in opposition to her older brother’s Western-reaching English-learning mentality; her refusal to treat the medical emergency of one of the old soldiers versus her uncle’s wordless lending of his own oxygen mask; the opposing political activists dropping their facades and swapping printing company details and office gossip. In the end, we see the sad truth that much of the contemporary politicking and posturing that harks back to the past is much more concerned with selfish motivations than any sense of honour.