Review: Sunset, Radio 3

“No-one is truly innocent”

Even though the word ‘play’ has now been banished from BBC Radio, as renaming everything ‘Drama’ apparently brings it into line with the rest of the BBC’s output (although the reasoning adopts a ridiculously unnecessary position in justifying dropping the word ‘play’ as this article nicely puts it) , I have still been listening to the odd play, sorry drama, when the time has been available. Doug Lucie’s Sunset was one I particularly enjoyed, so I thought I blog it briefly.

I have to admit that my choices for listening are often governed as much by who is involved in the cast as the subject matter of the writing itself: some actors just have voices I could listen to all day and so I jump at the opportunity to hear them where possible. In this case, it was Stella Gonet – whom I’ve adored ever since The House Of Elliot – whose presence was the most appealing, though Leo Bill and Jason Watkins alongside Julian Glover and David Bamber added much to the appeal.

Set in Russia in 1984, the play follows the ethical, moral, artistic and human dilemmas faced by controversial novelist Andrei Demidov when he is awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Andrei’s English publisher has ensured that his critical stance on the Soviet Union’s involvement in Afghanistan received worldwide acclaim, but the Soviet authorities have banned his work and clamped down hard on him and his family, keeping them under virtual house arrest and exerting pressure on him not to acknowledge the award and thus further undermine the ruling regime or else accept their compromise.

Lucie’s play works really well at detailing the almost laughable strictures imposed on dissidents living under Soviet rule, but never lets us forget the darkness and very real terror behind their threats. So the opportunity to potentially break free and defect to the West is one which certainly appeals, but the matter is complicated by the wilfulness of his estranged son Nikolai who is used as a bargaining chip against him. So as Andrei rails against a state that has no artistic soul, he is forced to examine his own and decide how far he wants to engage in the world of politics.

Julian Glover invests Andrei with just the right amount of grizzled indignance as he debates what really is the most important thing to him, but it is Stella Gonet’s Alexandra and Leo Bill’s Nikolai as his wife and son that really make this a powerful piece: the former’s compassionate demeanour being stretched by her frustrations and the latter’s bolshy idealism tempered by the limitations imposed on him because of who his father is. Jason Watkins’ KGB watchdog Sergei makes an amusing job of the almost Kafka-esque denials of the espionage they’re carrying out.

Real depth comes from David Bamber’s English publisher whose good news do not come without a hidden agenda and strings attached, and from Nicholas Woodeson’s apparatchik Yuri whose personal connections with both Andrei and Alexandra substantially colours his interactions with both. But in these two, we also see the Realpolitik of the time, the conflict between East and West boiled down to the decision that one man has to make as both sides take their ideological stances which made this a highly fascinating and engaging 90 minute drama. Or play.

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