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A CurtainUp London Review
A Russian in the Woods
by Lizzie Loveridge
The central character, Pat Harford (Anthony Flanagan) is a young conscript, a national serviceman who has volunteered to go to Berlin and is assigned to an education unit. On arrival in Charlottenburg, a suburb of west Berlin, Pat Harford meets his commanding officer's secretary, the East German born, Ilse Bucher (Anna Madeley). Easy going and affable, Fraser Cullen (Louis Hilyer) encourages Ilse and Pat to get to know each other. Ilse's ambition is to leave Germany and fly to America on American transport so that she does not have to go through East German passport controls. Pat misses Ilse on a date at a dance and instead brings back to the empty headquarters, an American, Lloyd Jackson (Douglas Rao) with a view to him helping Ilse. Jackson is gay but Pat declines his sexual advances. Later Pat Harford is formally accused of giving sensitive information to Jackson, who is really Emil Voss and assumed by the British authorities to be an East German spy. Voss' defence is that he is homosexual and that is why he pretended to be American. Harford is humiliated by the military process, disgusted by the "communist witch hunt" and so that Voss is not implicated, confesses falsely to being a homosexual.
The title A Russian in the Woods refers to a border guard Pat Harford saw on his journey across the border, a Russian soldier with whom he was unable to make contact but the encounter has given Harford a problem. The enemy now has a face. In the first scene, whilst exploring near Hanover, Corporal Harford chances on a tennis court once used by the Waffen SS and a mysterious British soldier, Clive Burns (Colin Mace). Burns challenges him to a game of tennis and shows his sporting aggression. The endgame is a more serious one with Burns, now in his role in Army Intelligence pitted against the youthful Harford. Whelan's writing beautifully evokes the unsettling era of fear and betrayal, the same era which spawned Senator McCarthy's anti-communist trials. Whelan's twin themes are fear of communism and the fear of homosexuality.
Although Pat Harford is the central character it is also a play about Ilse. Delicate yet a survivor, Anna Holden gives an illuminating performance as the East German who fears the Russians. She is animated and volatile, a little girl and with the life experience of an old woman. At the beginning of the play her only desire is to go to America where "they believe in things in the pocket . . . we believe in things in the head". We hear how she hid from the Russian soldiers in a cellar full of bodies and ate dog. By the end of the play her priorities have changed and she wants to return to her home to look for her mother. It is the memory of Ilse, maybe she is his first love, which is strongest for Pat Harford when with the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in 1989, he looks back on his time there four decades before.
The play touches on the miltary's attitude to gays. Fraser Cullen, the most attractive and the kindest of all Whelan's characters confesses to Harford that he is secretly gay. Cullen lists the horrors that will happen to Harford for claiming to be homosexual. At this time, homosexuality is reason enough to blackmail someone.
Anna Holden leads the acting honours with her sympathetic portrait of the highly strung, sensitive and enigmatic Ilse. Anthony Flanagan pleases too as the ingenue who makes a brave decision, but more assured is Louis Hilyer's Fraser Cullen, who teaches Harford how to romance a woman. The other army characters are bullies. Captain Wirral (Charlie Simpson) has abused his position as Ilse's boss to force himself on her sexually and is very angry when his wife calls an end to the affair; most of his lines are delivered in a bark. Colin Mace as Burns is the kind of brutal soldier who seems to enjoy the sadism of his job, his severe haircut and large frame underlining his hardball image.
The director, Robert Delamere has added historical touches to the original screenplay. At the beginning, radio news footage takes us back from the demolition of the wall through Reagan, Gorbachov to Kennedy's "Ich Bin Ein Berliner" speech to the Berlin Airlift. At the end, while Harford remembers Ilse, she appears as if she is back in 1945, starving and hiding in her cellar. The set is a once grand house, half dilapidated with plaster falling off formerly ornately plastered walls, furnished with makeshift office furniture. It is Emil Voss alias Lloyd Jackson who points out to Pat that this house, appropriated by the Nazis would have been owned by a Jewish family. Maybe it is this memory which strengthens Pat Harford's resolve not to add his number to those who forget their common humanity. Peter Whelan's A Russian in the Woods is a straightforward play and a stimulating night's theatre.
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