Vanya is Alive @ theSpace, Symposium Hall

A one-person show presented by exiled anti-war Russian theatremakers, Vanya is Alive is unsettling, heart-breaking and remarkably compelling

Review by K Lane | 10 Aug 2023
  • Vanya is Alive

Vanya is Alive was written by Natalia Lizorkina in Russia in March 2022. After being staged as a reading at Russian-speaking theatre festivals around the world, it now receives its UK premiere at the Edinburgh Fringe, presented by a group of artists currently in exile due to their anti-war positions. Alya, the mother of a mobilised Russian soldier, receives the message that her son Vanya is absolutely free. He is alive, and will be coming home soon. As Alya attempts to unravel the truth about what has happened to her son, the audience is left wondering what is true and what is not. Lies pile on top of intentional double-speak and the simple failure of language to capture the disorientation of grief.

The one-man show is performed by Nikolay Mulakov, who spends the entire play alone on a blank stage. He wears jeans, trainers and a black hoodie; there are no props, no set, no costume or make-up. The text, translated into English by director Ivanka Polchenko, is delivered with a taut restraint. Character names and stage directions are verbalised as though Mulakov is reading directly from the script. Only rarely are characters embodied beyond small shifts in muscle tension and Mulakov’s wide-eyed, accusatory stare. Despite this challenging staging, Mulakov captivates throughout, slowly picking up speed and rhythm while maintaining an odd, hollow flatness. The overall effect is stark and unsettling.

Lizorkina’s excellent script effortlessly balances the intimacy of the central story with an existential universality. The audience is kept off-balance as the true horror of Alya’s situation slowly becomes inescapable – even then, the details are shrouded behind a veil of censorship. Beneath the fabric of the text, the playwright herself is wrestling with what it means as a writer to face the complete dissolution of language. The children are well-nourished and everyone is happy. It is spring. Vanya is alive.

Vanya is Alive, theSpace @ Symposium Hall (Annexe), until 12 Aug, 4.10pm, £10-12