Politics and poetics

Lisa Stein reviews 'Slavs!', written by Tony Kushner and directed by Matthew Lloyd

TONY Kushner is a truly remarkable playwright. An American who describes himself as a “left socialist”, he achieves with Slavs! in a mere 80 minutes, what few playwrights in this period can or will dare - he assumes an audience of disorientated anti-capitalists and asks them, “What sense are we to make of the wreckage?”

What makes this project truly great, however, is not only Kushner’s deeply human and expansive personal vision, but his extraordinary ability as a writer to interweave poetics and politics, with a deliciously witty theatricality, both hilarious and moving.

The play opens with two snow-sweeping ‘grandmothers’ debating the need for a vanguard party. It ends with the same debate, reiterated at a higher level, between dead politbureau ‘grandfathers’ and Vodya, a mute child. In response to the child’s innocent “perhaps” to ‘end of history’ capitalism, a story about Lenin and his brother is told, ending with the dead characters repeating the title of the book about building the vanguard party - the famous question/answer, What is to be done?

Linguistic and visual metaphors abound, often to great comic effect. The anarchist lesbian Katherina guards the pickled brains of great Soviet leaders. Her lover, the children’s doctor Bonfiala, believes in socialism and miracles and prays to an icon of Saint Sergius with Lenin’s face. “Your brain is in a jar next door: Your body is across town. Pull yourself together.”

Slavs! is a profound and funny play about people and socialism that engages both heart and mind. As the characters constantly remind us, people make history, though not in conditions of their own choosing. Other playwrights may still be scrambling at the foothills when it comes to this issue, but in posing the right questions Kushner finds his first step on the long climb we all face ahead.

Lisa Stein