From the Tzars to the stars: review of Little Eagles, RSC, Hampstead Theatre

30th April 2011 (matinée)

Have you ever wondered why the Russians had such early success in the space race, with the launch of Sputnik in 1957, closely followed by Yuri Gagarin’s first space flight in 1961 and the first space walk by Alexei Leonov in 1965?  Then this new play, commissioned for the 50th anniversary celebrations, will provide plenty of insights.  We have been treated to numerous accounts of US space missions over the years,  even more so with the recent 40th anniversary of the moon landings, so it is very refreshing to hear about the less well-known story of the Soviet space programme through Rona Munro’s play ‘Little Eagles’.

The play tells the incredible story of Sergei Korolyov, the architect and founder of the space programme, a rocket engineer who defied Soviet egalitarian ideals by standing out as a genius, a situation which leaves his political masters very uncomfortable.  Somehow, he manages to hold on to his position through several changes of power, re-assigned from the Gulag to work for the military during and after the war, for many years effectively as a prison labourer, biding his time until he is finally able to seize the moment and ignite Khrushchev’s enthusiasm for a space programme.

We get a real sense of Soviet system and its unpredictable power, desperate for superior defences, yet full of fear and suspicion of any individual with the exceptional talent to deliver them.  Some of the best moments come from verbatim accounts, for example Leonov’s speech as he sees the Earth for the first time from space.  The camaraderie and rivalry between the cosmonauts, the ‘Little Eagles’ of the title, is engagingly told, and echoes similar stories from accounts of US astronauts. 

In the central role of Korolyov, Darrel D’Silva is totally convincing as the obsessive Scientist.  We are rooting for him throughout the play, and the sense of time running out is palpable as he hopes for ‘just five more years’ to complete his project.  He is well supported by Brian Doherty as Khrushchev, who delivers his bombastic speeches with aplomb, whilst Greg Hicks, doubling as the old man and composite military figure General Geladze, is a menacing presence in both cases, firstly as a reminder of the Gulag, and secondly as a representative of the suspicious military authorities, looking over Korolyov’s shoulder at all times, and ‘counting every rouble’.  Phillip Edgerley is eerily authentic as the almost-silent Brezhnev, waiting patiently at Khrushchev’s side for the moment when he would take over.

Less successful is the figure of the ‘Doctor’.  This is an invented character, and Noma Dumezwheni has a hard job competing with the more engaging figure of Korolyov, despite having powerful arguments about the human cost of the programme.  Although there are some genuinely poignant moments, the relationship between them doesn’t develop dramatically.  We learn late in the play that she feels great affection towards Korolyov, but this does not come across.  It is never clear what the purpose of the character is.

There was some very effective staging, making good use of the small space – the rockets are indicated by a hint of riveted steel, lights, and the reactions of the characters, and the cosmonauts are literally hoisted on ropes to deliver some of their speeches.  This device is a little overused by the end, but it does convey their utter vulnerability in space. 

There is some non-traditional casting.  It makes for an interesting debate as to how well this can work in a piece that is based on such recent history and includes real characters.  The casting of a black actress as the Doctor works well because of the context of her role, however, in the role of Natasha, Korolyov’s daughter, it did seem intrusive and distracting.  The Actor’s Equity Association defines non-traditional casting as ”the casting of ethnic minority and female actors in roles where race, ethnicity, or sex is not germane”.  Apart from the fact that race is fairly germane to the relationship between father and daughter, it seems strange to select such a marginal character for this type of casting.

Overall we felt the play needed to be a little more like its subject, that is, focussed on a clear goal.  There were too many characters, and although there must have been a wealth of material to draw on, in this case, less would have been more.    Whilst the subject matter was intriguing, with some great dramatic moments, it didn’t have the sophistication of that other great play about warring scientists, Copenhagen.

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4 Responses to From the Tzars to the stars: review of Little Eagles, RSC, Hampstead Theatre

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