This is the Fringe, where artistic experimentation is the new normal. Here, it’ll take more than the old tricks to surprise and impress.
Now here’s the thing: madness is largely inaccessible as an audience member. The best cases show how long it can take plays to sympathetically present a mad character. King Lear spends four whole acts on the eponymous king before presenting his pitiful, lost state. Equus’ Alan initially comes off as aggressive, socially unaware and potentially violent, and it takes an entire play’s worth of probing to understand him. Without that kind of build up, the onstage antics of the mad can appear Looney Toon-like, devoid of any lasting meaning.
This, I find, is the case with The Romanovs. Like the Looney Toons, scenes are often entirely disconnected, characters rarely progress, and violence and death are temporary annoyances. The few lasting plotlines that develop are often too hastily managed. For example, a romance between two characters is established with a minute of dialogue followed by a moment’s kiss and that is considered enough for him to call himself “her lover”.
The only thread of plot that carried any real emotional significance is the relationship between Lenin and the possibly-sane guard Levitsky. George Hilton’s Lenin carries not even a shred of the charisma and steel the man is known for, making what should be a vestige in normalcy oddly disconnected from reality. On the other hand, Richard Bannister brings a real sense of tragic dignity to Levitsky, an element I missed from many of the characters.
Other than that, it’s just very standard. It has just about everything you’d expect from a piece of modern theatre. There are physical theatre sections, done sloppily, with a lot of unnecessary motion. A horse cart doesn’t need three whips, especially when there are only two horses and the added movement tends to distract from the dialogue. There are Brechtian elements - in the form of chanting at the audience - which is more awkward than eerie and rarely did the words benefit from the extra noise. Even imagery within the dialogue stands out as mediocre, with an entire scene devoted to the ideas of clouds and darkness.
Perhaps the best part of the play was the novel audial opening. Blindfolded, I listened as the speakers sent out snippets of dialogue, horses hooves and other sounds. When I started hearing whispers from behind me, the scene exploded excitingly into three dimensions.
Madness is hard. Innovation is hard. This, however, is the Fringe, where artistic experimentation is the new normal. Here, it’ll take more than the old tricks to surprise and impress.