Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings


Author, Director, Actor (and Artist) Danny Masewicz (Graham Tyrer) with his haunting canvas evoking the Katyn forest

Under Katyń

The Bearpit, Stratford-upon-Avon


It seems astonishing within two days to encounter two excellent amateur productions, each based around just six characters.

But that's the case: just a day after The Loft's superb staging of The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, I found myself at Stratford's The Bearpit,another hive of bold programming, encountering a new play in which the writer, Danny Masewicz, aka seasoned Bearpit regular and former headteacher Graham Tyrer - noted co-author of The Literacy Leader's Toolkit: Raising Standards Across the Curriculum 11-19 (Bloomsbury) -also directs and plays the lead role.

Tyrer has behind him a list of hits: Detective Tupolski in Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman, actually set in a totalitarian state; Reggie (the Tom Courtenay role) in Ronald Harwood's Quartet; One Man, Two Guv'nors; Blackadder Goes Forth; Second Thoughts Company's staging of Ayckbourn's A Chorus of Disapproval. But Graham has only in the past two years - having been adopted in England aged just six weeks - after ages of dedicated researching as documents were released and the truth gradually emerged - uncovered the true fate of his Polish birth family.  

Beloew Katyń, credited to the community group Copernicana (the name of course of Poland's greatest polymath, Mikolaj or Nicolaus Copernicus, 1473-1543) and firstlight theatre, is supported by, among others, The Polish Cultural Institute and The Polish National Institute of Remembrance (Instytut Pamięci Narodowej or IPN, now responsible for investigations into those historic murders): why, will become apparent below.

It follows hot upon a weekend 'Shakespeare Poland Festival', the highlight of which was a performance of a remarkable piece, 'The Dismissal of the Greek (or Grecian) Envoys', by Jan Kochanowski, penned in the 1560s (or arguably 1570s), first staged at a Royal performance in 1578, and often credited, with other plays in verse of Kochanowski (1530-84), as being Poland's first venture into staged drama.

In fact the Polish Community is the largest of Warwickshire's ethnic minorities, Stratford being home to a large proportion, with Polish the next most widely spoken language after English. Hence perhaps the play is actually set in and around Stratford.

Masewicz had a weighty reason for writing it. His own character, Stefan Masalski, a father who takes out some of his Angsts on canvases and paint, is a deeply hurt figure. Poland historically has not been a happy place anyway.

under mids

Turning his back - Stefan's ominous painting (Danny Masewicz) is surveyed by his unwanted Russian visitor (Mark Spriggs)

 Split into three subject parts by a cynical alliance of Germany, Austro-Hungary and Russia, the country - once a major player in medieval Europe - has only at last regained its identity at the end of the First World War. It has been further savaged by the Soviet-Nazi (Molotov-Ribbentrop) pact, losing its historic eastern provinces to (as it happens) the Ukraine and Belarus, both parts of the USSR.

There have been other humiliations: forty years of Communist domination, a lot of centralised economic incompetence, the brief reining in of Solidarity and instigation by Wojciech Jaruzelski of Martial Law (possibly to preempt a Soviet 1968-style invasion). Much of this has happened before, or shortly before, the action takes place.

But something else, the most savage - and unforgiveable - of all, was the systematic massacre of thousands of more than 20,000 Polish soldiers by the Russians in 1940, above all in the Katyń forest: mass murder on a scale only a Stalin (or Beria) could devise.

If one thinks of how many families of young Ukrainian - or Russian - soldiers are grieving, today - right now - think all the more of the Polish households who had no idea - at least for three years - why they received no letters, or whether their loved ones were alive or dead, let alone how grimly they died, in secluded woods near the River Dnieper, between Russian Smolensk and (later) the Belarussian border; until, ironically, the Nazis discovered and promoted the truth.

It is not something to forgive and forget, especially if one or more of your family has fallen victims to those massacres. Or (the play makes clear) of other Soviet heinousness, more recent, such as being imprisoned for writing poetry ("the wrong poetry") and being beaten to death under interrogation.

The author's own paternal grandfather, second lieutenant Witold Masewicz, was a victim of the events at Katyń. His main character, Stefan, cannot forget. It has driven him more or less into a shell, smouldering with hate, 50 years on, not just for those who perpetrated it, but for the entire Russian people. Gorbachev had just revealed that the Russians indeed were the perpetrators. Now it has become a matter of pride, of identity, for him to keep stoking the flames.

The more he insists, the more we are caught between sympathy and support, and questioning and doubt. After all, half a century later, with a Poland revived, democratized and peopled by new younger generations, must this all go on as if it happened yesterday?

It's tricky creating, defining, directing and acting all in one. Danny Masewicz's script is (in essence) well crafted, polished and adroit- and deeply sincere. You did feel from time to time that his own performance might have benefited from another's directorial input. Yet a bit hunched, slightly decrepit, knotted brow, he did capture the crucial ingredients. He was forceful. And consistent. And moral. And genuine. These are what give his stiff, gruff demeanour its raison-d'etre. Whispers of Chopin seemed to back him up: to speak to his deep, unrelenting emotion. Set and lighting, a bit simplistic and pallid; possibly sufficed.

There is also an issue arising from the fact that the whole play is - largely - monothematic: about that one subject, unyieldingly. The way some change or variety is brought about, however, is by a revealing, unfortunate consequence of Stefan's determined upsetness, or seemingly unjustifiable, prejudice. For By a twist of fortune, things will actually turn out otherwise.

finding quote

By 1990, the important (not quite post-Soviet) year when this play is set, Stefan's and Zofia's daughter Julia (enchantingly - and impressively strongly characterised by Lily Skinner, who in a shortish part, as it happens, plays a vitalising role and impacts very strongly), has fallen for a young Russian, Alexei or Alyosha (Elliot Gear). He creates the right character: the boy has a touching innocence, good manners, honesty, respect. How could one possibly take against him? He's a fine choice for a son-in-law.

But Stefan, argumentative, insistent, dispirited - his gloom feels at times almost Chekhovian (there is in fact an allusion to The Cherry Orchard: ironically the couple met, aged 18, in a production of it) - becomes a block on this charming, apt romance, at the expense of his own daughter; and contrary to the instincts of his wife Zofia Masalska (Ania Bhatia, a splendid, beautifully spoken, memorable performance at every turn).

But the boy - is a Russian; and that's that. Stefan does come up with the possibly one and only joke/bit of lightness in this essentially gloomy play: from the start the notion of 'pregnancy' keeps wilfully popping up. Perhaps soon, given the dangerous inevitability of a half-Russian grandchild, he is on to something. In which case, the joke Leitmotif is serious.

The build-up comes in the latter half (Below Katyń is devised in four scenes), when Alyosha's parents, Grigory and Anna Kostevsky, have been invited, or have sort of chosen, to meet up with their son's prospective in-laws. Stefan's behaviour is outrageous, confrontational, offensive, and - we come to conclude - thick-skinned, obsessive, unnecessary. and all but unnatural. We begin to take their side.

At the end, despite Zofia's best efforts, the Russians leave without reconciliation. In a simpler way, it's doubtless the kind of pained first introduction to in-laws many quite ordinary people dread.

But there's disturbingly more than that. Mark Spriggs's Grigori Kostevsky seems solid, sound, possessed of presence, not insensitive, a decent fellow with a tiresome habit of repeating "old chap", who all too quickly learns that he is not remotely welcome. And a horrific truth will actually put him bang in Stefan's firing line.

His stylish wife, Anna Kostevskaya (Pamela Hickson, co-founder and Vice-Chair of the Bearpit's Board of Directors) proves arguably the most striking and inventive personality - utterly professional both visually and in delivery - of this production. In fact the two mothers, she (Russian) Ania Bhatia (Polish) felt the most persuasive figures in the play, for they introduce a measure of ambivalence, and common sense - or is it? - that balances the general demeanour of the plot. Except, that is, that it goes wrong in her last utterance.

The fourth and final scene is placed, symbolically, in Warwickshire's Forest of Arden - once vast, like Sherwood or Dean, or - Smolensk. Oddly, no one had put on warm clothing. One very neat piece of the writer's directing saw the two mothers alternating, up and downstage (although this was actually - beneficially - in the round).

But this 'forest' does, as Masewicz planned, ominously bring back that other. For it transpires Grigori, married in 1936, and who resents being described as "your lot" - i.e. Russian: (They're not "my lot") finds it really does make a difference. As a young twenty-something in that fateful year of 1940, He had been involved in, one might say dragooned into, the handling - loading on, loading off, transferring to prison buses - of the very doomed Polish prisoners, like Danny's lost grandfather, that Stefan is, as it turns out, frighteningly correctly, determined to navigate.

So when Anna Kostevskaya argues, in the face of this horrendous revelation, "My husband had no choice", Stefan's reaction "There's ALWAYS a choice" suddenly seems to justify his entire argument from the beginning. Unnervingly, it's as if he knew, instinctively, unerringly, that this hapless parental encounter would yield a terrible discovery such as this.

It's all been mapped out, charted. As if the whole thing - the apparent chance outcome - has been put there, as if by fate, to bring about the horrendous peripateia - that Greek playwrights' sudden, unexpected, Oedipodean overturning - that does indeed make for great drama.

So we've been heading hither from the very outset. God, or Fate, or Revenge, does indeed move in mysterious ways.

Roderic Dunnett


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