Friday, August 28, 2015

'My Eyes Went Dark' at the Finborough Theatre, 27th August 2015

The first thing you notice is the floor. It's strip of shiny black PVC that pours over the performance space like an oil slick. A walkway is provided to prevent the audience from scuffing it with their shoes, hinting at an aesthetic importance. It looks like an infinite blackness - to step on it is to plunge into the abyss. 

And it's into the abyss we go. My Eyes Went Dark is a fractured character study, that examines grief, madness, rage and death. Our protagonist is Nikolai Koslov (Cal MacAninch), successful Russian architect, loving husband and doting father. In an instant all this is snatched away: his family are on board a plane that collides with another aircraft. Koslov is one of the first on the scene of the crash, finding the nearly intact body of his infant daughter stuck in a tree. 

Crazed with grief he takes up a lonely vigil at their grave, trying to make sense of the absolutely senseless. Refusing to accept that his life could be shattered by something as trivial as a 'mistake', he resolves to find those responsible and punish them. He eventually fixates on Thomas Olsen, the air traffic controller on duty during the accident, with tragic consequences.

My Eyes Went Dark is a complex, multi-layered narrative with an awful lot bubbling under the service. First and foremost it's a thorough psychological autopsy of a morbidly fascinating real-life story. All this actually happened: Koslov is a thinly fictionalised Vitaly Kaloyev, who suffered the exact bereavement we see on stage. His grief, eventual retribution and the consequences arising from that make for tragic reading.

From these roots spring a play about the ways loss can deform the soul. Writer Matthew Wilkinson takes multiple factors into consideration, most notably how culture informs our decisions. Prior to the incident Koslov considers himself an refined metropole, a far cry from the North Ossetian traditions of blood for blood and warfare. As he struggles to come to terms with his loss, he falls back in deep-seated cultural and religious thinking. Koslov's transformation is disquieting, raising questions about whether we can ever truly escape our upbringing.

Running underneath that is a soup of symbolic imagery. The play is a knot of Russian traditions retribution, legalistic corruption, aircraft wreckage and mangled bodies, all of which inevitably summon thoughts of Putin's Russia and the shooting down of Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine. Though never directly named, Putin haunts proceedings in the way we slowly pick through Russian ideals of machismo and masculinity.  

All this is conveyed through MacAninch's marvellously complex performance. Though studded with 'big' emotional moments; furious snarls, howls of anguish and so on, it's the smaller moments that really make the character. Micromovements of the muscles in his lips, hands clenching and unclenching, his darting, accusatory eyes and quick pauses in the dialogue give a complete picture of the man. This is powerhouse acting, though this  level of skill is all but required for the play to work.

He's ably supported by Thusitha Jayasundera, playing every other role in the play. Displaying chameleonic acting skills, one scene she's a curious young child, the next a cool psychiatrist, the next a corporate lawyer. It's a credit to her performance that we're never in the slightest confusion who she's playing or what her motivations are.

Similarly buoying up MacAninch is a striking, austere set. The aforementioned PVC flooring is bordered on either end by powerful LED lights, allowing for a dynamic, expressionist design that dovetails with Koslov's state of mind. At times, the strong lighting creates scenery from beams of light, at point Koslov almost appearing as if crucified on an invisible cross.

When top class performance skills combine with a bold aesthetic and multi-layered writing, you can't go too far wrong. But perhaps the best compliment I can give My Eyes Went Dark is that it demands you approach it intellectually. Even writing this review I was determined to do it justice, though I still feel I'm scratching at the surface. 

Though not one of my regular theatrical haunts, the Finborough Theatre has quickly established itself in my mind as a venue for serious, moving drama. So it's a shame that almost as soon as I discover the place I learn it's endangered by having luxury flats constructed atop it. I deeply hope it successfully fights against the planning application, any theatre willing to stage Operation Crucible and My Eyes Went Dark deserves support!


My Eyes Went Dark is at the Finborough Theatre until 19th September. Tickets here.

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