I am going to declare a few things. The last time I saw a revolving stage at Belvoir St Theatre was in 2000, in Michael Scott Mitchell’s design for the MTC/Belvoir co-production of Yasmina Reza’s The Unexpected Man, for which I was a 20-year-old Honours student sent in to observe a rehearsal process. What I learnt from that experience was profound and personally transformative: and ultimately I came to understand what an absolute NIGHTMARE revolving stages are. The sound of the revolve, the awkwardness of furniture when it is placed on the revolve. Stage managing, timing, pacing all the challenges of blocking a play are tenfold! So when I saw that Simon Stone, “the youngest director to direct in the Upstairs theatre” had taken on a revolve. I thought, “oh dear, I hope he’s got a good one- and he knows how to use it!”

I also have to admit that I have seen (and enjoyed) these three actors in other plays: Alison Bell in Rabbit at STC, Chris Ryan in The Call (Griffin) and Concussion(STC), Ewan Leslie in Plays by Himself (A Josh Lawson Trilogy) at the Old Fitz- and yes I am the only reviewer in Sydney who did not see War of the Roses at the beginning of this year: for reasons that I will explain some other time. I was aware of the talent of these actors: but not of the director: I haven’t seen anything he has directed prior to The Promise, nor have I witnessed his performance skills- so this is the first time for me to see his work.

There has been a recent rash of Russian play texts that have appeared in the Sydney theatre landscape this year. Matthew Lutton’s production inspired by Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov at STC’s Wharf 2 The Duel, Eamon Flack’s “workshop” of Gorky’s Summerfolk, Lee Lewis’ production of Vassily Sigarev’s Ladybird and currently Joseph Couch’s retelling of Nikolai Leskov’s novel Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in the B-Sharp Season and now there is Simon Stone’s production of Aleksei Arbuzov’s The Promise.

Enveloped in darkness, like the moment before waking, our eyes are opened by the light, we are greeted with a bare space and an argument. It is Leningrad 1942. Two people, Lika (Alison Bell) and Marat (Ewan Leslie) are trying to make sense of why and who the other is… what is going to happen, what have they done and what are they to do? Lika (on the verge of her 16th birthday) and the wily Marat make the decision to survive together, ration food and sleep in a ying/yang head/foot configuration for warmth. Before long an unwell stranger Leonidik (Chris Ryan) interrupts their cosy arrangements, and joins them amid the bomb blasts for an unforgettable winter in uncertain times.

From this intense and basic beginning, love develops between Lika, Marat and Leonidik, plans are made, lies are told and promises made. The three are bound by their need to survive and their affection for each other. As the play progresses, relationships are redefined, options examined and choices made. As Marat and Leonidik leave to face their respective battles and return as hero’s to Lika (and Leningrad) the story is told through large sections of exposition, where-in they explain where they have been, what has happened to them, how they have changed, what they are thinking about.

There is a strong and ideological pulse to this production: it speaks to ideas of freedom, love, obligation, reason, popular poetics, heroism and an insatiable need for feelings of connectedness. Marat is a passionate, proud soldier, Leonidik is a broken poet, and Lika the angelic medical practitioner, who live with intensity and acceptance throughout exceptional circumstances. The commitment, focus and drive of the characters is evenly matched to the talent and commitment of the actors, who, with great care, deliver this epic Russian love story with clarity and conviction. Alison Bell’s Lika is intelligent, beautiful and spontaneous, Ewan Leslie’s Marat is suitably elegantly brooding and Chris Ryan’s Leonidik is both charming and forgivably flawed.

Though elements of this production are nothing less than beautiful, (primarily a spectacular lighting design by Niklas Pajanti), aspects of the production are left wanting. The script,(although a version written by Nick Dear in 2002, and is based on a translation by Ariadne Nicolaeff from 1966) appeared to suffer some vestiges of an awkward translation- stilted and without subtlety. Though an impressive device, the revolving stage was sometimes intrusive and slightly unsteady: and the flow of action punctuated with actors leaping on and off the stage disrupted the finely crafted composition and lighting design. Perhaps the answer to the question of why a portion of act two was blocked off the revolve can be found in designer Adam Gardnir’s design notes in the program entitled “An Engagement with Risk” which speaks of over designing the play, and starting again two weeks into rehearsal. Even so, with design elements re-thought and reinvented within a short time, numerous scenes and transitions between scenes appeared clumsy and lacking in directorial focus and craft.

Performances are strong and clear and although I was not particularly moved by this production, I was engaged with the ideas presented and can appreciate the sentiments of being torn between remembering, and living and planning for the future.

The Promise Belvoir St Theatre- 11 July – 23 August