Review of 'A Russian in the Woods' by Peter Whelan, Barbican, London
Peter Whelan's play deals with the human wreckage of war and imperialistic rivalry. Set in a devastated Berlin in 1949, this production focuses on Pat Harford, a young British soldier. He arrives in Germany shortly after superpower politics have changed direction. Stalin has metamorphosed into a totalitarian dictator intent on conquest, and the storm clouds of a new conflict gather.
Divided between Russia, America, Britain and France, Berlin now lies on the faultline of this emerging Cold War in Europe. But to Harford his national service in Germany merely represents an opportunity to see the world. A lover of Russian literature, he is unable to feel any hostility towards Britain's new enemy. Instead he merely sees their humanity as he takes a curious peep at Soviet troops while travelling across Russian-occupied territory.
When he arrives in Berlin he is left in charge of an elegant but ransacked old house which serves as a dilapidated army education centre. He is unsettled by his mentally scarred colleagues and disturbed by reports of two German corpses in the garden. But his problems really begin when he befriends a GI at a dancehall. Innocently he invites his new American buddy back to the army base, only to discover that he has been lured into the murky Cold War world of espionage. As he is forced to question his sexuality and choose between friendship and nation, the play accelerates towards an absorbing climax.
Although Whelan's thoughtful play is at times politically ambiguous it offers a fascinating insight into the fear and paranoia that gripped Europe for more than 40 years. Thirteen years on from the collapse of the Berlin Wall it provides a valuable reminder of the pain inflicted on a generation of Europeans by imperialist rivalry.