The cosmonaut's last message to the woman he once loved in the former Soviet Union

Tue 21st – Sat 25th May 2013

reviews

Sam Ward

at 22:51 on 21st May 2013

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It was clear from the first few scenes of The cosmonaut’s last message to the woman he once loved in the former Soviet Union, that David Greig’s script presents a challenge. Two cosmonauts drift in outer space, having lost all communication with the world whilst below, on the earth which they circle, lost characters desperately try and find some communication in the emptiness. What has been achieved by Emma D’Arcy and Thomas Bailey is one of the more powerful pieces of theatre I have ever seen.

Upon entering the audience is presented with a still: a snap-shot of existence. Whilst a married couple sit on their sofa, a lone cosmonaut stands watching the audience. His hands move delicately, as if conducting a piece of music. Indeed it is this relationship between the cosmonauts and those below that makes the play so wonderfully touching. Vivienne and Keith desperately try to communicate; Nastaja wanders across Europe as a lost soul; crying out for contact and up above this miscommunication, this craving for such communication is reflected in the lonely, desperate conversations of Oleg and Casimir. Emma D’Arcy’s Vivienne was beautifully formed. Constantly the victim of language’s failures to communicate real humanity, such time and attention had so clearly been spent finding this character that when the police officer interrogated her at the beginning of the second act one could be excused for wanting to reach out a hand and help her. Similarly Sophie Ablett’s Nastaja was one of the finest parts of the piece: her desperate cries standing atop the roof for her father; every single part of Ablett’s characterisation contributed to the visceral quality of Nastaja, down to the smallest eye movement as she lay in bed with her lover. Mention should also be made of Will Lewis’ cosmonaut. Understated and subtle, the true power of Lewis’ performance emerged in the second act: his crisp, cold and at times menacing aura cultivated in the first half slowly falls apart as he loses all ability to communicate, and the image of Lewis standing at the front of the pristine white stage, an orchestra masking his words as he cries out to a listener he knows isn’t there was created with such evident passion, that one couldn’t help but feel extraordinarily moved.

Indeed it was this setting that framed such performances so well. The white raised stage generated an emptiness; an immediate sense of loneliness, and there was something quietly un-nerving about Casimir’s fumbling with wires in the cupboard beneath the very floor upon which characters walked. The most powerful part of the design was undoubtedly the use of projection and sound. The high pitched, mournful note that struck upon switching to the Cosmonauts emphasised the surreal, perspective altering quality of those moments. The harsh, abrupt sounds of waves, breathing and radio interference crashed against our senses and generated the eery, lonely atmosphere that made this play so moving. The most effective moments however, were those that utilised computer glitches and crashes to crack a perfect picture, or flick up a script with which the characters were not complying. Miscommunication was represented so harshly and yet so beautifully so as to give those moments a feeling at once of fear and desperation, mourning and yet hope.

In short, Cosmonaut stands out to me as a phenomenal success on so many levels. It is so refreshing to find a piece of theatre that uses technology to such great effect, which uses actors that so clearly have spent time and effort entering into this world; which isn’t scared to move away from the ordinary conventions of theatre. Although there were some performances in which perhaps a little more energy could have been thrown, I have no doubt that this will happen in subsequent nights. There are so many moments that strike one as beautiful; there are so many characters with which we desperately want to reach out a hand. One of the most emotional pieces of theatre I have seen in the Oxford drama scene and perhaps beyond. Do not, under any circumstances, miss this.

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Francesca McCoy

at 09:40 on 23rd May 2013

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Having missed the opening night performance due to a technical fault (forgetting to look at my phone calendar), I made it to 'The cosmonaut’s last message to the woman he once loved in the former Soviet Union' on its second night at the Keble O’Reilly. To be fair, the title would have probably been too long to fit on my phone anyway.

Looking at the audience, I was slightly apprehensive. Half of the seats were empty – not a good sign on the second night of a performance. Where were all of the pals of the first-night goers, clamouring to see the stellar performance their buddies had been eulogising in the intermediate 24 hours?

All I can say is – pals, you missed out. Cosmonaut’s last message is really just a breathtaking piece of theatre and it is impossible not to be rapidly swept up in the characters’ lives even in the briefest of snapshots within which we first see them. Using nothing more than lighting and projections on a circular wall (giving the impression that with the cosmonauts, we are looking upon the scene from a porthole in a spaceship), we are transported at intergalactic speed from the dull confines of Vivienne (Emma d’Arcy) and Keith’s (Miles Guilford) suburban living room, to the stark prison of Oleg (Will Lewis) and Casimir’s (Mark Mindel) rocket, via an airport bar, a quick trip to the beach, a sneaky glimpse at a seedy underground nightclub, and manage to end up on a mountain in France. The staging is brilliant – with no need for tricky manoeuvring of props on and off the set (collapsing a sofabed and putting it back together is about as far as it goes) the audience has no chance to be distracted from the actors’ performance.

And they most certainly live up to the intense scrutiny to which they are subjected. Each actor has adopted a particular feature which makes their performance unforgettable. Most chilling for me was that manic gleam in Mindel’s eye – and the scene in which he obsessively massages Lewis’s chest as the latter speaks is genuinely haunting. Other standouts were Sophie Ablett (Nastasha) and Emma D’Arcy’s relentless Russian and Scottish accents – both of them cleverly managing to avoid slipping into a hammed-up exaggeration which would detract from the sympathy we genuinely start to feel for these characters. D’Arcy in particular is fantastic in her hopelessly inept communication in France. The attempt between her and Bernard (Edward Wingfield) to cross the language barrier is painfully frustrating yet beautifully wrought, struggling in large swathes of silence broken only by d’Arcy’s ‘er’s and helpless shrugs.

In appropriate contrast to the simple lighting and projections were the equally simple, yet incredibly effective uses of silence (or rather, static silence – you will never hear a television on the blink again without thinking of Cosmonaut) and stillness. The rigidity with which Lewis and Mindel hold themselves perfectly motionless at the front of the stage whilst action takes place on Earth is worthy of the most dedicated yogi. The audience is left with nothing to take their attention away from exactly what co-directors d’Arcy and Thomas Bailey command us to experience on stage – and what we are thus left with is an absolutely exemplary piece of theatre from a very talented cast and crew. PLEASE, pals – listen to your friends’ eulogizing. The Cosmonaut’s last message is crying out to be seen and heard.

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