It takes a brave playwright in Russia to tackle Government corruption there today. However, that is exactly what Elena Gremina does in ‘One Hour Eighteen Minutes’. Her play is a political work that draws on the real life story of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who accused Russian Interior Ministry officials of embezzling 230 million dollars in the form of a fraudulent tax refund. Shortly afterwards, Magnitsky was arrested and held without trial for nearly a year. Two weeks before he would have had to be released, he was found dead in custody during a transfer to another prison. The title of the play refers to the period of time that medical treatment was denied to him in his cell. The assumption here is that Magnitsky died as a result of medical neglect and abuse in prison.
The play is inspired by a range of materials including first hand interviews with whistleblowers. Gremina’s text asserts that Magnitsky was denied access to clean drinking water and shared a cell with seventy prisoners surrounded by open sewage and rats. The play suggests it is most likely he developed pancreatitis brought on by these squalid conditions. Gremina pulls no punches in her presentation of the story. She presents the viewpoint that he was murdered and that the Government then proceeded to cover up the truth.
The theme of Government corruption looms large in the production. The performance by Wendy Nottingham of Judge Elena Stashnikova is both convincing and terrifying. She is interviewed about her decision to refuse Magnitsky medical treatment in prison. In one telling moment she says:
“No. I’m not a person. Judges are not “people” in the legal process. We’re there to reflect the will of the government.
I’ve had cases where there’s been nowhere near enough evidence against the accused – but I managed to get a guilty verdict in the end. That’s my job. If you’re in court and the judge says black is white and white is black, then that’s how it has to be.”
Interestingly, when the play first opened in November 2010 at theatre.doc in Moscow it did not include several of the interviews in the current version. Following the premiere, a number of people who knew the characters in the play, approached Gremina with additional testimony. This was a year after Magnitsky’s death. As a result, new interviews have been included in the updated version of the play.
All of the characters in the play are real and where possible words are taken from interviews and court hearings conducted between 2008 and 2012. Their names are flashed up on projections above the stage so that the audience is aware which scenes are reconstructions and which are based on real transcripts.
While the subject matter is gripping it sometimes it is hard to follow the action. There are only four actors, who play several parts in the production, so it is not always clear who is speaking. Then there is the question of context, as this play was written for a specific audience in Moscow. There are a number of aspects of the play which are lost in translation. For example, it makes assumptions about the knowledge of a British audience who will be less well-acquainted with Magnitsky’s case. Also it is hard to shrink such huge subject matter into only sixty minutes and so the story feels somewhat condensed.
However, despite these minor shortcomings, this is a disturbing and gripping play. The setting of an office filled with books and files is used to full claustrophobic effect such as, when Magnitsky’s wife embarks on a Kafkaesque search for her missing husband. She uses various windows to speak to prison guards which open in the bookshelves. The director Noah Birkted-Breen also makes effective use of video cameras to interview characters and project them onto transparent screens above the stage.
Sputnik Theatre, which brought the play over to London, provide an important service to the public in sourcing, translating and presenting contemporary Russian drama in the UK. ‘One Hour Eighteen Minutes’ works well as an introduction to Russian political theatre. For audiences looking for a good fringe or off-West End production to see then they could do no better than to start here.
One Hour Eighteen Minutes
New Diorama Theatre
Tickets: 0844 209 0344 .To 1 Dec. www.newdiorama.com/