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Eve Leigh’s subtle, smart first play is about the power of stories. But her characters aren’t simply soothed by tales round the fire – they trade yarns at the risk of their health and freedom.
‘Silent Planet’ is set in the ’70s in a mental institution in Soviet Russia, when General Secretary Brezhnev was making a habit of locking away anyone who didn’t comply with the party’s vision. Army doctor Yurchak interrogates prisoner, dissident writer and apparent schizophrenic Gavriil in a tiny office. During their sessions Yurchak makes it clear he wants Gavriil to visit the hospital library.
Off-limits to doctors and soldiers – who are of ‘non-polluted’ mind – the library is for inmates only. This is because, perhaps somewhat perversely, it is a resting place for banned books by the likes of Mikhail Bulgakov and Evgeny Shvarts. Yurchark gets Gavriil to re-tell the allegorical stories about politics and oppression that he reads there – at great risk to himself and to his patient. The two find solace and strength in each other’s company and the outlawed words.
Leigh’s play edges on the surreal and – like the drugged and manipulated Gavriil – we’re not quite sure what is real and what is not. ‘Silent Planet’ gets a little dragged down in this, instead of focusing on the remarkable situation and characters, which hold more than enough drama and poetry for one play. But the hunger both men demonstrate for the tales is believable and the constant unease that hangs over the play palpable.
Petra Hjortsberg’s sparse, simple designs make Yurchak’s office into a kind of liminal no man’s land. And the actors work well in the restricting space. Graeme McKnight is very good as a wretched, ill Gavriil, and Matthew Thomas maintains a satisfying air of ambiguity as Yurchak.
It’s a promising debut from Leigh and an intriguing story that will resonate with anyone who has ever been transfixed by a novel or moved by a poem.