Describe The Night
Ian Toner in Describe The Night by Rajiv Jospeh. Image by Wen Driftwood
A member of Chicago's legendary Steppenwolf Company, Rajiv Jospeh is a Pulitzer prize nominated writer. Ten minutes in to Describe The Night you begin to suspect this might not be the work he was nominated for, even if it did win an Obie in 2018. Its corkscrew tale twisting itself about the mystery of Issac Babel’s missing notebook unfolds in a fashion Agatha Christie would have been proud of. Endlessly looping back to view the same discussions from different angles. Interconnected scenes discussing an old man and a grave, leech soup, the 2010 Solmensk air disaster, to name but a few. Each presented then re-presented to signify their opposite. Joseph’s longwinded interrogation of lies becoming truth and truth becoming lies refracted through key events spread over ninety years of Soviet history. In which truth becomes whatever the state, the media, or those with power say it is.
For those unfamiliar with Soviet history, especially writer Issac Babel who was executed in 1940, a crash course would certainly help. Particularly as Describe The Night merges selective fact and rampant fiction till it becomes almost impossible to tell where truth ends and conspiracy theory begins. A neat idea that soon becomes a one trick pony. Borrowing heavily from Boris Pasternak, its Doctor Zhivago set up of the sensitive Russian writer, the hardline Soviet official and the woman caught between them both is played out against the backdrop of Russian history. Trading the lost balalaika for a notebook and establishing twisted family connections, and a mysterious baby to boot, it all starts to look like Zhivago’s runt twin. Offsetting this is a tale of a jittery KGB agent whose star is in the ascendency in 1989. No prizes to discover it’s Putin. As the two tales intertwine, the blurring between truth and propaganda isn’t made so much endlessly restated. Joseph, like his inanely dull torturer, clearly in love with the sound of his overwrought voice. Favouring the throw enough talk and something will stick approach as opposed to landing economical, well placed punches.
Lara Meek in Describe The Night by Rajiv Jospeh. Image by Wen Driftwood
Under Rex Ryan’s heavy handed direction subtlety and nuance prove thin on the ground. With pace rushed and timing off much of Joseph’s humour fails to land. Then there’s non Russian accents proving far too off putting. Often playing subtext as text, keen to achieve high octane energy, things often descend into the high pitched and loud. Key scenes looking weak for forgetting true menace doesn’t need to shout, with Putin looking about as threatening as a tantrum. As the end nears, with the high strung Babel tipping endlessly into histrionics, you’d happily pull the trigger yourself just to give your ears a rest. Only the restrained Ashleigh Dorrell and Ian Toner shine, getting impressively to grips with their respective characters, as does the underused Lara Meek. Toner and Dorrell providing ballast and grounding to a seven strong cast working way too hard, way too fast and reaching way too high on occasion. When not sitting at the side of the stage like disinterested stagehands, or Brechtian extras.
With Describe The Night, Glass Mask Theatre introduce us to a work we might not ordinarily have encountered, for which they’re to be commended. There is also considerable effort gone into enhancing the playing area for Iris Liange’s set (projections, flats, curtains) which is also welcome. Still, no team wins all their games in a season and Describe The Night feels like a well intentioned, labour of love that didn't quite come off. Glass Mask will bounce back. Running a few minutes short of three hours, as opposed to the advertised two, Describe The Night certainly has its moments, but it might well leave you feeling less would have been so much more.
Describe The Night by Rajiv Jospeh runs at Glass Mask Theatre until December 9
For more information visit Glass Mask Theatre