Issue 228 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 1999 Copyright Socialist Review



Where money talks

The Forest
by Alexander Ostrovsky

Ostrovsky's estate comedy

Alexander Nikolayevich Ostrovsky was born in 1825 and died in 1886. This was a period of great expansion of capitalism in Russia with the freeing of the serfs in 1861. He had a first hand view of the workings of this expansion, being Moscow born and brought up in the newly rich, middle class, mercantile society, which he used to devastating effect as the subject of his plays. His indictment of the ruthlessly predatory nature of capital accumulation made him the constant butt of tsarist censorship, which he spent his life fighting. The theatre was the live culture of the illiterate masses in Russia, and therefore the most subversive of art forms.
There was, however, an outlet for his banned plays on the stages of theatres run by liberal bourgeois landowners on their estates. The actors were mostly their own serfs. This lower class element made acting and the 'provincial actor' so reviled in upper class society, and explains the situation of the main characters in The Forest.
The Forest is a comedy comprising a number of subplots that interweave and work themselves out on the forested estate of a woman landowner--the equal of any male landowner in the arts of ingratiation, connivance and bullying, and knowing when to deploy each art.
Raisa, the landowner, sells a part of her forest to a wood merchant, for which transaction she carries around her moneybox. The moneybox constantly and pointedly moves about the stage, getting inveigled into the heart of every sub-plot, not just where direct business is concerned, but where love, family or any other emotional situation arises. The audience gradually sees it emerging as the central, decisive arbitrator of the fortunes of all the players in all the sub-plots. But as this is becoming apparent, the moneybox is also closing in on the players and becoming meaner in the hands of its owner. Because of this, tragedy for the young lovers in one of the sub-plots is averted not by a handout by Raisa. but by the two poverty stricken, derided and disdained provincial players.
After a slow first half the comedy comes to life in the second, with high drama, and a serious message when the audience is left with no doubt as to the character of the central player--the moneybox. The actors, particularly Frances de la Tour as Raisa, give very good performances, and the sets are brilliant.
Chanie Rosenberg
The Forest is at the National Theatre, London

Fish out of water

The Riot
by Nick Drake

The Riot is set in Newlyn, a small Cornish village, at the turn of the last century. The local people have made a living of sorts from fishing and the tin mine, but this has been closed down. The men who work the boats are growing restless. They have never worked on the sabbath, but new steam powered boats with crew from other parts of the country are breaking the tradition.
Though this is a religious community, the fishermen want to defend their Sundays because it is the one day they need not worry if they will make it home in one piece. As the play opens, they are preparing to stop the Sunday boats from landing their catch.
There are many echoes with today. As the new century approaches, people fear for their jobs and way of life as their wages are driven down. As the local jobs have gone, former miners have emigrated to the corners of the empire and died fighting in colonial wars.
One of the challenges for the play is to make the events seem relevant. Can we still get involved in the drama? This problem is quite successfully overcome by the humour and strength of the characters.
Much of the action is set in the house of the local owner of the port, who was also the mine owner until he closed it down. Women who used to break stones at the minehead are going into domestic service in the absence of other jobs. But they still shout and swear as they did in the mine, and resent being treated as servants. Their allegiances are with the fishermen, and so the struggle takes place inside the owner's household as well as outside.
The owner gets many of the best lines. He has the confidence of power, and tries to convince the men that he has their interests at heart--all he does is for the good of the port. But as the violence mounts, clever arguments are less useful in keeping him safe.
As the riot approaches scenes are mixed up and at times it is almost film like, as if we are watching quick cuts in the action. This is an original play that is worth seeing.
Nicolai Gentchev
The Riot is at the National Theatre, London

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