(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 5/9.)
Consciously modelled on War and Peace, Vasily Grossman’s epic novel – written in 1960 but not published in Russia until 1988 – is not the easiest to transfer to the stage. Lev Dodin, as adapter and director, and the Maly Theatre of St Petersburg have done a heroic job in encompassing the book’s main themes, including the historic parallels between communism and fascism, and in giving the complex action, including the battle of Stalingrad, a miraculous fluidity.
Wisely, Dodin does not try to give us the whole book but focuses on key issues. Central to the story is the tortured conscience of a Jewish nuclear physicist, Viktor Shtrum, who in 1943 finds himself at odds with his scientific masters. This yields two unforgettable scenes. In the first we see the exultation of the suddenly indispensable Shtrum when he receives an approving phone call from Stalin. In the second, with its potent echoes of Brecht’s Galileo, Shtrum agonises over whether, to continue his research, he should sign a letter effectively condoning the death of Soviet dissidents.