From Russia with Love

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Review of 'Wild East' by April de Angelis, Royal Court, London

When Frank went on an archaeological dig that uncovered a 30,000 year old figure of a bird carved from a mammoth's tusk, he made up his mind: this figure was so exquisite, so perfect, so lovingly carved, he had to understand the people who made it. So he studied anthropology, inquisitive about human societies and their desires and needs.

Frank is the interviewee, fresh from the University of Lampeter, a kind of Rodney Trotter figure - gangly and socially inept, but idealistic. His two interviewers at the nameless firm are doctors of anthropology and business, one initially intimidating, the other friendlier. The 80 minutes of Wild East span the extreme ups and downs of the job interview.

We learn that it is some kind of marketing firm, which seeks to understand people and communities in order to sell things to them more effectively. It has just broken into a new market - oil - and is expanding operations in Russia. Thus it is interested in graduates like Frank who have done field work out there.

Frank has a real love for Russia; he despairs at the collapse in living standards for many over the 1990s, the drop in life expectancy, the environmental degradation; he feels that there is little hope left, that Russia has 'lost its soul'. But that's the point, says the anthropologist, our job is to identify what's been lost and to find something to sell back to them which can fill that hole. So the question becomes, can Frank be bought?

The play starts off funny: Frank is comical in his ineptitude; the doctors are sardonic and play off each other. But soon the feeling gets darker and a sense of tension and foreboding sets in. The firm has just been 'financially acquired' to be 'streamlined' and sold on. So why are they interviewing for new staff? The two interviewers are suspicious of each other and in competition. One of them feels she may be the one to be pushed out - maybe they want Frank to replace her? The other is trying to cling to her position by any means necessary, even if it means destroying old relationships and using new ones to get ahead.

As their paranoia and their personal history come to the surface, they begin to use Frank as a pawn to get at each other. Their competitiveness and mutual suspicion bring a real sense of unease, which undermines the initial shiny professionalism of the set-up. On the table between them is a piece of corporate art: a large, shiny, chrome sphere. It seems to represent that smooth space of globalisation, frictionless and flawless. But it has no 'soul'; it has no connection to the people who created it - a machine made it. All it does is reflect you back at yourself. It exists in contrast to the story of the ivory bird, which embodied a whole culture and captured its spiritualism.

As the interview goes on, the doctors drop the facade of integrity in their jobs. One of them pleads with Frank to take the job: 'You can make enough money to retire at 35! You can have a second career that means something!' The implications of the firm's work in Russia become clearer - deforestation, pollution, broken promises to local communities - and Frank must decide whether he's prepared to accept this, to lose his own 'soul' for the sake of personal gain.

Wild East certainly gripped me. The performances brilliantly ranged through comedy, paranoia, panic and desperation. The packed auditorium, filled with people of all ages, called the cast back for three bows at the end with rigorous applause. Tickets are £7.50 on Mondays, but get down there fast as the play only runs until 12 March.