Playing with perestroika


A Man with Connections
By Alexander Gelman
Thalia Theatre Company at the Lookout Theatre Club, Sydney
Reviewed by Philip Bilton-Smith

A Man with Connections was written by Alexander Gelman, a personal friend of Mikhail Gorbachev, in 1982. It is reportedly one of the most popular plays in the Moscow Art Theatre repertoire. Translated into English by Stephen Mulrine, the play appeared at the Traverse Theatre (Edinburgh) in 1988, and then at the Royal Court (London) in 1989. Now it receives an Australian production at the Lookout Theatre Club in Sydney.

The prospect of viewing a "a glasnost play" above a hotel in Woollahra worried me slightly. But then, if the Traverse had taken up the piece, it was hardly going to be Perestroika: the musical.

Gelman's play is not a propaganda piece, although it grows out of the tradition of "production dramas" which pushed the party line through settings such as factories and other workplaces. It is instead an attack on cumbersome and hypocritical aspects of the bureaucracy through the lives of the protagonists, a construction site supervisor and a librarian, who are left to deal with a crisis that could have been avoided.

If there is a fault with this production, it is in its very success as a piece of hyper-realism. We (the audience) are up against the wall (literally) in a space that is more living room than theatre. As Andrei and Natasha dredge up the past in an attempt to make sense of a present in which their son lies in a hospital bed, having lost both his hands in an industrial accident, we are made to feel like unwilling voyeurs. Pinned and wriggling on the wall, there is nowhere to go to escape the ugliness which unfolds.

The performances by Bogdan Koca and Mary Regan are powerful and compelling, almost too much so, so that the audience breaths a collective sigh of relief at the end of the 90-minute ordeal. Director Koca has swamped Gelman's work with his own persona (shades of Stanislavsky and Chekhov), the content of the piece becoming subsumed in the power of the performances.

This kind of theatre is more rarefied than popular. It's a shame, because A Man with Connections deserves a wider audience.