Black Milk

Sigarev's new Russia gets lost in translation

It’s a brutal, backward and morally despairing new Russia that’s depicted in Prime Cut’s version of Vasilly Sigarev’s Black Milk, billed as one of the theatrical highlights of the Belfast Festival at Queen’s.

The narrator (the always watchable Frankie McCafferty) sets the scene: a grim, badly-lit railway station in the heart (or should that be gut?) of the Siberian wilderness. A waiting room for lost luggage, lost souls and lost hope. It’s an environment where the future is less bright than the near-perennial darkness outside.

The station is the barely beating heart of an outpost ghost town, one of tens of thousands littered across the vast country where the only viable natural resource – people – have been strip-mined from the land, ripe for exploitation in the cities of the brave ‘new’ Russia. Those that remain subsist on little more than potatoes and illegal vodka.

Into this setting comes a vulgar ‘townie’ couple, snake oil charmer Lyovchick and his chain smoking pregnant wife Poppet, waiting to return to the city after having made a killing selling somewhat dodgy ‘super-toasters’ to the locals. These two represent an urban underclass, as much victims of the dehumanising ravages of Russia’s unfettered free-market as the yokels they see themselves to be superior to.

Sigarev has a lot to say about the moral and social shape of post-soviet Russia and none of it good. The humour in his writing acts as temporary balm rather than relief from the entropy and decay that applied its moribund grip on a majority of Russian lives.

‘Perestroika’ seems far away in Black Milk – it’s a word that the locals never took seriously anyway and here, ideas of offering Russians progress over oppression are rendered as tasteless as Poppet’s fake fur coat.

Most of the characters here are cynical or savvy enough to see the lie for what it is. They have two choices in this new-old world: to become a player or remain the played. The ticket clerk played by Ruth Hegarty turns out, like Lyvochick, to be a ‘trader’, peddling lethal spirits to the locals, many of whom seem to be marking time, drinking even though they know it may kill them.

Lyvochick, meanwhile, is a spoiled, scared child who wants his pitifully miniscule slice of the pie even if it means sacrificing his humanity in the process.

Poignantly, it is Poppet whose initial brash indifference changes. She sees God whilst giving birth amongst the simple rustics her and her husband have been ripping off, and with it a rediscovered yearning for a kind of spiritual cleansing. But like all other commodities, redemption comes at a price in modern Russia.

This is a play about little people, the world of bloated grasping oligarchs, military brutality, and political stagnation aren’t directly present, but rather ghoulishly reflected in the truly squalid lives and actions of the characters.

The old communist - who drunkenly tries to shoot the ticket clerk and prematurely brings on the birth of Poppet’s baby - appears as a pathetically futile idealist, clinging to a past that to many doesn’t seem so bad now.

Some people have questioned the effectiveness of giving the characters in Black Milk Northern Irish accents, but save brushing up on your Cyrillic alphabet and seeing an original version Russian language version, one wonders what such critics would prefer. An ‘Allo ‘Allo version of Black Milk with ‘hilarious’ Russian accents perhaps? Or, better still, some nice RP English to indicate that events of great universal and existential portent are unfolding before our eyes and ears?

The ‘authenticity’ of the voices is just fine, but something in the direction leaves one as cold as your average Siberian winter.

Taking on this play from Vassily Sigarev, one of the great documenters of the contemporary Russian condition, requires a firm grasp of the subtleties of his blackly humorous (and very Russian) way of telling a story, but also the real anger that underpins his narrative. As spirited as Prime Cut’s version is, it doesn’t wholly convince with this.

Packy Lee, who plays Lyvochick, is as good an actor as any of his generation when sympathetically directed. His Lyovchick though is a brash, arrogant bully, a whirlwind of sneering, leering energy set to 11. He then has nowhere else to go for the rest of the play, save to shout even more loudly. Similarly, Amy Molloy as Poppet is good but ultimately pretty unlovable, rendering her revealed personal tragedy somewhat hard to unduly fret over.

The rest of the acting is at best variable, making if difficult to genuinely connect with events unfolding on the stage.

Some thrilling, chilling sensory stimuli, such as an unexpected gun-shot and the juddering, satanic howls of a train pulling into the station (so gut-wrenchingly resonant that they cause the auditorium itself to shake) are powerful touches. As is the abrupt and neat ending. But, great writing and some deft flourishes aside, Black Milk never really lifts itself from poignant allegory to real human drama.

Joe Nawaz