State vs Natasha Banina


Arlekin Players, presented by Cherry Orchard Festival, Russia/USA, 55mins

Voila! Europe Festival, London | November 10-15, 2020

Nick Awde | THE X REPORT

As if enacting a grim real-life script, failed and spewed out by a horrific children’s home system, feisty Natasha (Darya Denisova) enters Russia society with no direction or back-up but high on the belief that she has a dream that will somehow give her the leg up she knows she needs.

So it’s sort of normal that she drunkenly drops out of a third-floor window for a dare and then falls for the journalist who writes about it, mistaking attention for affection. Her dream of Prince Charming sees her plummet into rabbit hole after rabbit hole until here she is, standing before us in the dock, accused as a killer and the audience becomes her jury as she pleads her case.

What we learn in this live solo show from Arlekin Players is that Natasha has been on trial by society every day of her existence, a tragedy that makes judging her crime so hard, especially when the core of her defence rests on her plea “Don’t you have a dream?”

She argues her way through a backdrop of video effects that punctuate the dialogue and movement, veering from washed-out sepia to full colour swashes as her mood vacillates from punchy to punched while edgy textures mark the scenes. 

Unless you’re from Russia, the lack of cultural context means that the story loses a huge amount of its intended resonance, but this is more than made up for by Denisova’s electric yet sympathetic portrayal of this scarred teenager fused with Igor Golyak’s focused direction and stark video staging – aided by Anton Iakhontov’s animation and Vadim Khrapatchev’s soundtrack.

They all combine to more than make a convincing case for live online theatre as a stand-alone genre, while Denisova never lets you forget that this is a performance in flesh and blood regardless of video framing and laptop audience.

This has evolved from Arlekin Players’ full-stage adaptation of the play Natasha’s Dream by Yaroslava Pulinovich which also hit the Moscow stage a decade ago with a like-minded minimalist production. John Freedman’s translation is compellingly light and dark but distracts with language more appropriate to an English literature graduate – a contrastive experience is promised in State vs Natasha Banina’s parallel Russian version, also part of Voilà! 2020

The digital aspect here neatly avoids gimmickry but instead highlights the real-time stagecraft of the piece – and the power of character, situation and performance make me think it really doesn’t need the interaction of the audience.

As it is, we are given a survey at the beginning and asked at the end to vote as jurors, with no deliberation, just a few seconds to reach a joint irreversible decision of guilt or not.

The thinking behind that came out in the revealing Q&A with producer Sara Stackhouse, in Boston, and the show’s team who, justifiably proud, gave a guided tour of the stage/studio set-up in what is actually their living room. A great takeaway: Denisova told us that she performs with the Zoom audience in gallery on a screen behind the cameras.

Back to the jury thing: in responding to audience comments about the tiny window for making up our minds and its fairness, Golyak explained that it’s the jurors who are on trial, that we ourselves need to explore what is guilt. Well yes but… the charge of ‘attempted manslaughter’ is a legal/semantic non-sequitur that clouds any attempt to balance the facts, plus, more crucially, if this was heard in a Russian court today, as a jury we would only be toothless enablers for the judge’s predisposition to her guilt.