TO See Salisbury is a brave and ambitious play from the pen of anti-Putin satirist Victor Shenderovich who was recently detained in Moscow in the wake of the arrest of investigative journalist Ivan Golunov – and then released.
It involves an hour and two minutes of sometimes mad-cap, frenetic theatre –comprising a mix of raucous singing, liberal drinking of vodka, imaginative use of video and lots of shouting. And it centres on Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov, the two Russian individuals suspected of attempting to poison Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury early in March 2018.
It examines their flight from media attention and their eventual exposure as agents of the Russian state despite claiming they came to Salisbury to see the cathedral and its magnificent spire (the tallest in the country). Boshirov, in fact, is Colonel Anatoliy Chepiga of intelligence gathering agency GRU while Petrov is Doctor Alexander Mishkin, also of the GRU. News coverage of the actual events is used to support the play.
Their relationship with a hectoring and bullying overseer Skvortsov (Nicholas Boulton) is sometimes hard to watch. He refers to himself as Mr Starling, Mr Lapwing or Mr Sparrow but he’s just a frightening and rather deranged individual who treats his agents as cattle and is quite happy to use an electric prod on them when interrogation needs must. The use of video in Skvortsov’s interviewing of them – homing in on their faces – is quite masterful, highlighting their vulnerability and skittishness.
Boshirov (James Marlowe) and Petrov (Oliver Bennett) are portrayed as somewhat confused individuals, not quite sure of what they have done – or failed to have accomplished. They also seem to have formed more than a mere working relationship – much to the anger of Petrov’s wife who accuses him of being a shirt-lifter – and the whiff of cannabis is never far away. Like Skvortsov, they are constantly assuming new identities (all part of their work), eerily shown by the wearing of masks.
Overseeing all this is Dementia Petrovna (a marvellous Irina Selezniova-Horner) who represents Mother Russia. One moment she is singing (screaming) passionately about the Russian state – ‘Russia never shall be slaves’. The next, she is co-ordinating missile strikes, talking dirty down the phone or scalding her child while wielding a belt. Like Russia, a truly unpredictable ogre. Like Skvortsov, a frightening individual.
Amid all the madness and noise, there are some witty lines – for example, Petrovna being told she has put on weight, a reference to Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and the expansion of its empire.
To See Salisbury is not an easy play to view, but then nothing is simple when it comes to Russia. This is an important piece of theatre for which Shenderovich, director Vladimir Shcherban and theatre groups Stage RC and HUNCHtheatre deserve great credit.
To See Salisbury is showing at RADA Festival on 3 July (7.15pm), 5 July (9.15pm) and 6 July (7.15pm).