Matthew Jameson embarked on a major project ten years ago. His ambition was to take Ten Days That Shook the World, John Reed’s detailed and penetrating book about the October 1917 revolution in Russia, and present it as a play. It later became the focus of his MA in Dramaturgy at Birkbeck, University of London, and the coursework deadline for that finally pressured him into completing the task.
History brought to life and made fun
He now had the script and, as Deputy Director of the Space on the Isle of Dogs, a venue in which to perform it. Enter the newly-formed BolshEpic Theatre company and all became set for the epic work to come to life. Simply named Ten Days, its doing a ten day run with a cast of ten, telling the story of ten specific, though not consecutive, days that changed the course of Russian history and subsequently the world. Jameson has also directed the play with Andy Straw and David Grindley as assistants and dramaturgy in the hands of Mike Carter and plays the part of journalist John Reed who acts as a narrator, giving an opening introduction, moving the action on from time to time and making observations.
A two-hour+ intensive course in some details of Russian history, might sound rather demanding if not daunting, and it is. What Jameson has achieved however, is to inject events with humour, generate fast-paced action and create clearly defined characters that even doubling up can’t blur. He’s also puts in some lines that clearly relate to our times and perhaps invite ponderings as to why we are not ourselves in a state of revolution. He’s placed the audience on either side of a traverse performing area that extends from the stage, across the floor and up into the balcony. With scenes performed throughout that area there is something of a tennis-match effect, which keeps you alert and with multiple doors available there is an ongoing surprise element as to where the next scene will emerge from. “It’s above you”, might be the shout, as speeches rain down from the balcony (also making its production debut?) and Tsar Nicholas II, eccentrically performed by Tice Oakfield (who plays five other roles), addresses his people and confirms how detached he is from them and the real world.
With the abdication of Tsar the Russian Provisional Government is established, but this is not to be a smooth transition of power and its time will be short lived. Now the floodgates are open for individuals to fulfil their ambitions and for rival factions in the nation to declare war on each other, as opposition to the new government mounts. Fortunately, all the internecine ideological battles between Mensheviks and Bolsheviks and their infighting are easier to follow onstage than they are in print. That’s not to say that getting lost in the mire is not likely. Yet it all remains highly entertaining, with just a few parts where the momentum drops and the desire for some perhaps unnecessary comic scenes takes over the timeline’s momentum.
The chaotic state of the nation as it deals with war on its borders, internal strife, inflation, starvation and unemployment is echoed in the many meetings that are held and where the characters assert themselves. Bearing an alarming resemblance to Rishi Sunak, Deven Modha brings zeal and comedy to the role of Kerensky, the Minister for War, while Matthew Wright as Lenin and Oyinka Yusuff as Trotsky reveal the difficulties of selling one’s beliefs and sense of urgency to others and of carrying the burden of responsibility. Bringing some secretarial order and a steady hand to meetings Maggie Cole doubles two similar roles as Lenin’s wife Krupskay and Minister for Charities, Kishkin. Salvatore Scarpa stands out with considerable presence portraying both Antonov, of the Military Revolutionary Committee and Martov, Party Leader of the Mensheviks. Clementina Allende Iriarte, Steven Shawcroft and Andy Straw each successfully play three roles bringing a range of dimensions to the production.
It’s an exhausting event for all concerned and one that merits admiration for all for pulling off a monumental and complex work that is history brought to life and made fun, while providing food for thought about the times in which we live. BAs Jameson points out, the story is ‘ridiculous, sensational, impossible. But it's also true’. It’s a remarkable experience to see a work of such immense scale undertaken at the Space where it nevertheless fits very comfortably, so in the words of the man behind it all, “Leave your politics in the foyer, wave your flag, stamp your feet and join the chants, because the next revolution may not have an intermission”.
Note: In response to the Cost of Living Crisis, BolshEpic are partnering with the Space to trial a ‘Pay What You Choose’ ticketing model to offer tickets starting from £5.