What is naturalism now? Naturalism in the nineteenth century was a radical, shocking, formally innovative kind of theatre that brought a scientific perspective to bear on humanity. It introduced innovations in design, acting, writing, directing, attitudes to the audience and to the world. Naturalism now is a kind of lazy default position, without a vision of the world and often suggests a complete disregard of theatrical form; we’re supposed to immerse ourselves entirely in the fictional world and the stuff people are saying and doing. Saying and doing. Naturalism is also a very broad category that suggests no consistent view of the world - there’s nothing like the scientism that is there in all Naturalist writers in the 1880s and 90s. Sometimes it’s not even about doing and only about saying: characters standing or sitting on stage having a debate about things with no real drama happening (e.g. The Vertical Hour). In fact, what seems to distinguish contemporary naturalism is its lack of attention to form, its belief in theatrical form as neutral or transparent, something you look through to get to content.
Remembrance Day is a play by Aleksey Scherbak, a Latvian playwright. This is about the legacy of Latvian fascism. Each year the surviving members of the Latvian Legion (a division of the Waffen-SS), hold a march and are met with increasingly fierce opposition. Anya is a young woman who has become passionate about protesting against fascism and wants to attend the march. Reluctantly, her father Sasha agrees and even paints the banner for her. When he says he will chaperone her she is horrifies and says she’s not going at all. In fact she does and is spotted by her father, who gives an interview to the TV news suggesting that the divisions be put behind us and that we might look at them just as old men. This is broadcast accompanied with editorial comments that paint him as a Nazi-sympathiser. Their door is vandalised and Sveta, Sasha’s wife, loses her job; their son, Lyosha, gets into a fight. The next door neighbour Valdis is a veteran of the Legion and when his friend Paulis has a heart attack, Anya (a would-be medical student) refuses to help. He survives but only because of the intervention of Uncle Misha, a veteran of the Soviet forces. Misha is terrorised out of the flat by the visit of a young Nazi activist. Anya falls out with the family and runs away with Boris, a left-wing activist. They have sex and Boris reveals himself to be a self-regarding bastard, uninterested in the direct action that Anya craves. After he leaves, Anya finds Misha’s old rifle and prepares for war.
The interest of this play lies almost entirely in its content. The form of the play is lumpily uninteresting. The staging is a little more inventive, with scenes overlaid on one another which produces occasional moments of additional resonance. But by and large if you don’t want to think about the legacy of Latvian fascism (and the ways it might parallel your own cultural experience and ideas) you won’t be interested in this play. It’s off-the-peg naturalism, not trying to give you a complex artistic experience. If there’s complexity its in the complexity of our emotional allegiances to the characters in the play, though these seemed to me less complex than the play seemed to think.
Mainly the path that is supposed to take Anya from youthful idealism to mature violent activism is ridiculous. The problem is that she’s so naive all the way through (‘In books people sacrifice their lives for ideas’, ‘I keep thinking I want to sit in Freedom Square and set fire to myself’) that the moment of clarifying disillusionment with Boris doesn’t work. First, Boris is such a cliche it’s hard to get involved in the situation; second, she goes from naive dreaming to naive activism. What’s she actually going to do with that 60-year-old gun?
The play is lumpily written, with some extremely inelegant plotting. The neatness of the legionnaires living next door, one having a heart attack, and Anya being a medical student feels lumpy. It seemed to me bizarre that Sasha’s mild remarks could be editorialised by the television news so harshly. (I know the point is about how humanitarian sentiments don’t survive in a fiercely divided culture but still it seemed a step too far.) I’m not clear why exactly Uncle Misha does a runner. He leaves his keys for Anya, not for any obvious reason except that it gives her somewhere to have sex with Boris in the final scene.
The translation doesn’t help to engage you. There’s something theatrically dead when people are speaking a bad translation. The air doesn’t move; it just seems arid, like we’re watching people gingerly talking about situations rather than acting them. The language is florid and clumsy: why does the young activist use the phrase ‘Your fusspot Christian ideas ... they’re a dead end’. Who under the age of 50 says fusspot? And the rhythms are all wrong. Look at this ‘I never got to finish school. The War got in the way. Stiff competition, getting into medical school. You think you’ll make it?’ Going from ‘in the way’ to ‘stiff competition’ is horrible, like there’s a sentence missing. The actor will be like a train trying to jump a gap in the tracks.
So, while I feel I know more about the history of Latvia and the legacy of fascism and of the Soviet occupation, I didn’t get much out of this as a play. It seems to me a good example of the fag end of contemporary naturalism.