Terrorism begins at home, or so suggests the Russian play of the same name, which has arrived in a thrilling Royal Court production skedded for a shamefully brief run in the Theater Upstairs. While the title might suggest some kind of polemical screed, this collaboration by the Presnyakovs, two brothers from Siberia, takes an unexpected tack, turning a sequence of ostensibly discrete encounters into a chillingly interconnected inquiry into violence that all but rocks the studio auditorium with its savage import. The play is at once a fascinating puzzle — it demands, and gets, the utmost attention from an audience — and a ruthless account of a now-worldwide pathology. The Presnyakovs manage to implicate us all in their portrait of the insidiously casual escalation of horror.
The opening scene gives off the flavor of a promenade-style production, this time with a twist: We spectators can’t take our seats because the airport that the playhouse for the moment has become has been closed due to a bomb scare. (The incident has particular resonance in London, where such events occur all too often.) The scene ends, and the audience takes its seat for the five that follow, and a good thing, too, insofar as the gathering impact of the play is best dealt with sitting down.
At first, the different vignettes seem to be so many variations on the stealthy and seemingly ceaseless forms terrorism can take. An adulterous liaison turns nasty when an erotic encounter ends in bondage and in death. The so-called “relaxation room” of an office is in truth a chamber of horrors where an employee has hanged herself. Two older women sit chatting at cross-purposes, their only link a shared interest in murder. In the wake of a gas explosion, all that matters are the photographs from an event that, you might argue (as the play does), resists aestheticization.
The Presnyakov brothers reportedly wrote their script before 9/11, not to mention prior to last year’s horrifying siege on the Moscow theater that generated fatalities comparable to those chronicled in this text. The play’s ability, then, to have anticipated or at least suggested actual events must have sent a frisson through patrons at the Moscow Arts Theater, where “Terrorism” premiered in November (a mere month after the siege).
As performed at the Court in Sasha Dugdale’s electric translation (Dugdale also did translation duties on “Black Milk,” the previous play in the Court’s ad hoc Russian season), the writing is both eerily prescient and utterly on the pulse at a time when what is daily being assassinated is any lucid sense of life as it was once lived. To that extent, as is stated near the end, “Everyone, I mean everyone, is infected.”
It’s not too fanciful to think of the play as a cunning jigsaw puzzle marred only by an 11th-hour narrative decision from the writers — was the whole thing merely a dream? — that hints at a failure of nerve. For the most part, the structure bristles with intrigue, as an event seen or alluded to in one sequence comes rippling to the surface with usually troubling results elsewhere. The very nature of the play virtually demands that details be as unspecific as possible, beyond pointing out, I suppose, that our de facto hero, Ian Dunn’s beleaguered passenger of the first scene, does make his plane by the end, for better or for worse.
“Terrorism” is performed by the same company that earlier acted “Black Milk,” with the welcome addition of Paul Hilton as the lanky lover whose gamesmanship involving a pair of tights in the second scene becomes pretty grim. One could argue there’s a characteristically Russian fatalism to a play whose sentiments — choice in life, we’re told, is merely “a decoy” — carry cynicism to an extreme.
But there’s no denying the skill with which a British company brings the play home to a western public, whether you single out Paul Ready as a hellish boss or Di Botcher and Sheila Reid as the two old dears with a more than passing knowledge of life’s brutality. The cast make a second play out of changing Hildegard Bechtler’s cleverly shifting sets, the choreography, if you will, overseen by director Ramin Gray with the same keen-eyed elasticity he brings to the play.
There’s nothing overstated about “Terrorism,” which, its title notwithstanding, doesn’t come waving warning signs or alerts. Instead, the play pushes the implications of its title to the uncomfortable limit: Why worry about others killing us, ask the Presnyakovs, when we have no trouble doing it ourselves?