The Russian invasion of (or, depending on your point of view, special operation in) Ukraine is just over a year old now. Discovering and understanding the background to this issue is a tortuous process and means tracing a long history of cause and effect which stretches back to… well, where exactly? Some might say that it all kicked off with events in 1917 with the upheaval in Russia itself which led to it becoming the USSR. The Russian Revolution swept away the old regime and introduced Communism to the social order. Figures such as Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin became universally recognised political figures driving their country into a new era. The actual act of Revolution only took ten days to achieve though, of course, its antecedents stretched back for generations and its repercussions are still being played out today.
It is this central brief time scan that Matthew Jameson examines in his play Ten Days mounted at The Space in London’s Docklands and seen as a live stream (it is now available on demand). Taking as his central text American journalist John Reed’s seminal book Ten Days That Shook The World, Jameson’s “labour of love” project (it has taken a mere 10 years or so to get this work finished) provides a convoluted history lesson which sets out the main events in some detail and introduces a whole gallery of historical figures who played their part in the process. I would have used the term “potted history” but at nearly three hours long the project could hardly be accused of skimping on detail and I am glad I decided to watch it across a couple of days with a goodly interval between the two halves.
I confess that when I first read the production blurb detailing its attempt to encapsulate the whole of a significant historical event, I thought the piece might take the form of some of the celebrated output of the National Theatre of Brent (e.g. The Messiah, Ben Hur, The Ring Cycle) with their tendency to comedically overreach by trying to stage unsuitable epic subjects. But not a bit of it. Here is an honest attempt to encapsulate an intense week and a half of historic febrile activity, dispel some myths and lead its audience to a greater understanding of what happened all those miles and all those years ago. That it manages to do so with panache, a healthy dose of humour and some knowing winks at Britain in 2023 is all to the good.
Jameson himself takes on the role of Reed who acts as our guide and narrator setting things in context and wryly commenting on events. This character is a very necessary one forming a bridge between the personalities involved and the audience who are occasionally encouraged to join in vocally and wave red flags. The remaining company consists of nine actors who multirole furiously in a bewildering array of accents to give us the aristocracy, the politicians, the rebels, the armed forces, the general populace of St Petersburg/Petrograd and basically anyone and everyone else involved. Matthew John Wright plays Lenin as somewhat uncertain of himself and his destiny while Oyinka Yusuff lends a pragmatic air to Trotsky’s demeanour. The quieter scenes between the two of them are some of the most successful. I particularly enjoyed Tice Oakfield’s gallery of well defined characters including a supercilious Tsar Nicholas; he also directed the musical elements.
The casting is fluid and there is no attempt at any degree of facial similarity between actors and characters. As most of us would have little idea of what these figures looked like this is not a problem. Costumes fall somewhere between historic and non-historic and maybe this could have been rationalised better. The production also opts for contemporary features such as mobile phones and identification lanyards – towards the end the successful rebels are seen partying in the Winter Palace to rave music while the general population outside continues to suffer – I couldn’t help feeling there was a more modern resonance being highlighted here!
In the same way that Tolstoy’s epic novels are stuffed with characters, so too is this historical event and it isn’t always easy to follow who is who at any one time – especially given the rapid changes required. However, a detailed programme does much to alleviate any insecurities and at least watching it in the way I did I was able to pause the video and dive into the notes for reassurances or clarification. It was evident that in the live iteration the changing locations of scenes are tracked on a screen with captions. As these can only be occasionally glimpsed on the recording it might help if these could be reproduced on the video version. The space in The Space is put to effective use with a central transverse playing area on the auditorium floor and other scenes happening on the small stage and above in the balcony. The single camera has rather too much work to do to keep up (and doesn’t always succeed) and sound levels can be variable particularly during the louder or more distant passages; it definitely helps to wear headphones.
In the end you have to admire Jameson’s chutzpah and the commitment of his company in attempting to mount such a demanding project especially on a limited budget. It achieves its aim of presenting a significant chunk of “intensified history” and is a salutary reminder that what happened then has repercussions now. Whether you think you already know everything or nothing at all about the Russian revolution you will certainly learn something you didn’t know before and if it inspires you to consider contemporary events more carefully then that’s certainly no bad thing either. As Trotsky himself once wrote: “Although they be nameless, let us not forget that revolutions are accomplished through people”.