My Theatre Club had an outing recently. Minus one of our members… because she was on the stage!

I met my lovely friend Katia at university, when we were both studying at Queen Mary’s College, University of London. I was reading English Literature and Language, and she was reading Law. One of the first things I learnt about her was that she was a model, which seemed impossibly exciting and glamorous, but she was always so thoughtful, modest and down to earth that half the time I’d forget about her other life outside of university (until I spotted her in Vogue, or modelling for Toni & Guy on huge billboards all across the city).  We’ve remained friends ever since, and try to meet every week to catch up on each-other’s gossip; though hers is a lot more exciting than mine!

She mentioned being interested in acting a while ago, but had been told that her Russian accent would be too great an obstacle and she should give up on the idea. I remember disagreeing, but she’d been put off and, typically pragmatic, seemed to put it to the back of her mind. Then, of course, she was offered a part in a play. Called Sunstroke, it was inspired by two short stories by Anton Chekhov & Ivan Bunin. Wonderfully, they needed a beautiful young woman who was also very Russian; and Katia fitted the bill perfectly.

sunstroke 1

Belka Productions aim to bring undiscovered Russian literary and theatrical gems to the London stage; an admirable vocation given how little we really know about Russian society and culture in the UK (apparently wild mushroom collecting is a national pastime, and they have a thing about watermelon. Interesting details, but not enough to really understand Russia, I’d have thought). Last year Belka produced the critically acclaimed Warsaw Melody at the Arcola (sorry, I know ‘critically acclaimed’ is code for ‘other people said it was good but I didn’t see it’, but it’s the best I can do), and next April they are bringing us A Dashing Fellow. Having experienced Sunstroke, I’ll definitely be queuing up for tickets.

sunstroke 3

Actress Rosy Benjamin

Sunstroke wove together two similar plots, both exploring the passions and torments of love outside marriage. Chekhov’s The Lady with the Dog was juxtaposed with Bunin’s Sunstroke, both tales taking place during a particularly hot Russian summer, and exploiting the febrile effect this has. I found it interesting that the initially blasé predation of the men was subsequently thwarted, when their supposed detachment turned to obsession, and it was their female counterparts who walk away from them in the second half. Perhaps there’s a feminist in me after all. We had wondered where either story would be going after the interval, as they seemed to have been concluded both logically and emotionally. This only reinforced the typically-Russian, saturnine conclusion, however, where the protagonists’ lives were tarnished by their inability to relinquish what they could not have.

Actors Oliver King and Stephen Pucci – Photos © Nick Rutter

The acting was powerful and full of energy, even in moments of stillness. The only aspect lost in translation was the ages of the characters, as they all appeared young and attractive to us rather than this potential distance between them being evident. The set was fairly simple, taking the form of two raised platforms at either end of a traverse stage, and an awful lot of sand. It was also a small, intimate venue, which made being in the audience feel voyeuristic; an impression that worked well with Sunstroke  given the content. The characters’ emotions were additionally conveyed by the presence of the dancer Masumi Saito, whose fluid contortions around the stage simultaneously evoked the stylised precision of Japanese traditions, and the licentious passions of the couples. Multiple layers of symbolism were woven around the fairly simple plot, to be either puzzled over or subliminally absorbed. Found in playing cards scattered across the sand like discarded morals, and the sand itself poured over a splayed kimono as if burying inhibitions.

sunstroke 1

Masumi Saito

A couple of photos I took after the performance

Taken moments before the sand was swept away by the cast and crew

Fellow theatre clubbers, Charles and Steve, towering over me despite my four inch heels.

It was a stunning and thought-provoking production. I was delighted to see Katia’s stage debut, and hope to see her acting more in the future. It was also interesting to catch a glimpse of Russian culture that I suspect the new TV series on FOX, Meet The Russians, will not be focusing on. Despite the fact that Katia will also be featuring in this as well!

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