BBC Radio 3, 8 November 2009
An episodic play set in Leningrad between 1942 and 1960, The Promise
covers the lives of three teenagers - Lika (Ruth Wilson), Leonidik (Harry Lloyd) and Marat (Russell Tovey) - thrown together
in a bombed-out house during the siege of the city by the Nazis. Bonding together in adversity, they vow to keep in touch
in the future, even though their lives might change. Arbuzov's play tries to discover whether that vow is kept, once
they graduate into adulthood.
Predictably enough, all does not unfold well: Leonidik marries Lika and they live
together in the apartment, while Marat fails to return from the war, He eventually returns unexpectedly, and admits that he
has been in love with Lika all the time. However nothing can be done: Marat leaves once again and returns much later (in 1959,
in fact). Leonidik realises the situation and decides to leave himself, insisting that Marat and Lika should follow their
instincts and stay together. The 'promise' of the play's title refers to the vow the three of them made when they were teenagers
in 1942 - to stay together, and to help work for a better world once the conflict ended. Sadly such dreams are not realized:
all three characters end up having to make compromises in their lives, and hence fail to fulfil the aspirations they embraced
when they were younger.
Although originally written in Russian, I found this version (created by Nick Dear
from a translation by Ariadne Nicolaeff) very English in tone. While the ending of The Promise looked forward to
the so-called 'Swinging Sixties,' we felt that the three characters believed that not much would change. They would continue
having to make compromises. Such sentiments are strongly reminiscent of plays like Look Back in Anger, in which
the post-1945 desire to create "a world fit for heroes" has been replaced by disillusion and hopelessness, especially amongst
the educated middle class. The Promise was performed successfully in the West End in the late 1960s, with Ian McKellen
in one of the main roles; I suggest that audiences at that time found the play equally relevant to their situations, as the
so-called 'Swinging Sixties' came to an end with many of the promises about a changed Britain remaining unfulfilled.
Although engagingly performed by the three main actors, in a fast-paced production
by Sasha Yevtushenko, I have to say that this revival came across as an anglicized period-piece, evoking the lost world
of the two decades immediately following the end of the Second World War.