Black Milk

Prime Cut's new production brings Russia to life on the Irish stage once again

Just what is it about Russia - and Russian drama - that Irish playwrights find so inspiring? In recent years Frank McGuinness, Thomas Kilroy and, most notably, Brian Friel have all wrestled with Chekhov. Now a new production from Belfast’s Prime Cut is getting to grips with one of Russia's foremost contemporary dramatists.

Written by Vassily Sigarev, Black Milk receives its Irish premier at this year’s Belfast Festival. Set in a remote, rural railway station, the play is a darkly comic dissection of the clash between old values and those of post-communist 21st century Russia, revealing the timeless and universal battle between rural and urban, old and young and new rich and new poor.

It is a long way from Belfast to Moscow (1690 miles to be precise), but director Matthew Torney believes Black Milk has plenty to offer Northern Irish audiences: ‘The play looks at the underclass, an urban underclass and a rural underclass. It’s about people struggling to survive, and that's something we can all understand, especially in these difficult economic times,’ he tells CultureNorthernIreland during a break from rehearsals at Belfast’s Southbank Playhouse.

Actor Packy Lee, who plays the role of Lyovchick in Black Milk, agrees. ‘I think this play tells a story that everyone in Belfast can relate to,’ he comments. ‘I think Northern Ireland is becoming more like Dublin, which is more like Moscow with the level of poverty, the disparity between rich and poor, the people sleeping on the streets.

‘Nowadays if you walk up the Shankill road or the Falls road you’ll see people from here begging on the streets but there are also people from other countries. It’s particularly hard on them, without the support of their people.’

Sigarev’s plays have received plaudits across the globe. He won the London Evening Standard Award for the most promising new playwright for Plasticine in 2002, and his work has been performed around the world. Belfast-born Torney, who has returned home from New York to direct the project, is full of praise for the Russian dramatist.

Black Milk was first produced in London at The Royal Court in 2003 and consolidated Sigarev’s reputation as one of the world’s most exciting dramatists. I am thrilled to be back home in Belfast and working with Prime Cut to bring this exciting performance to the city,’ he enthuses.

Sigarev’s first two works, Plasticine and Ladybird, were both set in urban contexts, but with Black Milk he turns his attention on the countryside, and its uneasy relationship with the bustling metropolises of Moscow and St Petersburg. ‘This play is his first to focus on rural Russia, and how out of step it is with modern Russia,’ Torney says.

Rural-urban, rich-poor, old money-new wealth: these dynamics are present in just about every society. So why are Russian dramas particularly popular amongst Irish writers and directors? ‘There is something about the Russian temperament that the Irish really understand and relate to,’ Torney suggests. ‘There is also the spirit of the people that is very like ourselves.’

‘They are a deeply passionate people. I think that’s one of the reasons why Russian plays work so well in Ireland,’ says Amy Molloy, who plays the female lead in Black Milk.

Having had the chance to play Poppet - Lyovchick’s heavily pregnant wife who is stranded in the Russian countryside with her husband when their train to Moscow does not arrive - Molloy longs to truly experience the world’s largest country: ‘Russia is such a fascinating mish-mash of cultures and people. I have never been there but doing this play just makes me want to go even more. I’d love to travel the Trans-Siberian Railway - at least until I land a big movie role in Moscow.’

From Russia with Love has already been done, but it seems that, for the next generation of Irish players, Russian drama has lost none of its allure.

Peter Geoghegan

Black Milk runs at the Brian Friel Theatre, Belfast from Saturday October 22 to Sunday October 31 as part of the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's. Check out Culture Live! listings for more info.