The Curing Room at the PleasanceCultureTheatre
David Ian Lee’s grim play builds on an incident recalled in George Steiner’s The Death of Tragedy, where a group of Soviet soldiers are left naked and abandoned for 60 days in the basement of a monastery, ultimately resorting to cannibalism to survive. Lee accredits his inspiration for The Curing Room to Judgement, a thee-hour long endurance piece on the same story by Barry Collins, and it takes some stamina to endure the gruesome visual spectacle presented in this debut by Stripped Down Productions.
While sickeningly realistic corpses decompose in the corner of the stage, we watch as contorted and hunched bloodied bodies gnaw pitilessly on the kidneys of their former comrades. Few of the original seven survive – and even less with their sanity intact – as the strict command chain of the Soviet Red Army breaks down, leaving the remaining privates clutching onto the sharpened femurs of their officers to protect themselves from one another.
This visceral, borderline repulsive play succeeds through Joao de Sousa’s superb direction and good performances all round – notably Harvey Robinson as the moral yet pragmatic Senior-Lieutenant Sasha Ehrenberg and Marlon Solomon’s sardonic Lieutenant Vasilli Kozlov – but on the whole the piece stimulates the gut rather more than the mind. Questions over the dark morality of cannibalism are sidelined for the drama of social dynamics, as the disintegration of the military hierarchy within the prison is stimulated as much by personality defects as by hunger and desperation. It is bleak; despite de Sousa’s efforts to highlight them, there is little by way of salvation or hope – only intermittent moments of camaraderie and half-crazed righteousness break the soldiers’ inevitable descent into animalism and fear. And though the play gruesomely portrays the horrors of what happened to the soldiers, it fails to comment on them. In Collins’ original adaptation of the tale we are asked to judge, here Lee simply forces us to witness.
Accompanied by the chilly, barren set and dark lighting, The Curing Room is tense and dramatic throughout, and if slightly reliant on appearance over content, there is no denying its lasting emotional impact.
The Curing Room is on at Pleasance Theatre until 9th November, for further information or to book visit here.