Describe the Night at Hampstead Theatre
The concept of truth gets picked apart in this creative, yet ultimately disappointing show set over a century in Russia.
Written by Rajiv Joseph, Describe the Night focuses heavily on truth and post-truth: how truth can be ambiguous, rewritten and maybe even false. The narrative itself combines factual elements with fictional storytelling. The characters – or some of them, at least – are real people from history, including a certain Russian president who’s known for bending the truth. But the US playwright has strung them together over decades in order to make impossible connections.
Isaac Babel, Vladimir Putin, Soviet Russia, the truth. The subject matter is big, interesting and important, but perhaps it’s too big. The play is too broad, and consequently, it fails to really achieve anything.
It’s all a little confusing. Joseph’s drama is more a collection of scenes than a story. Yes, there is a narrative thread that connects them – but it’s thin. There really is no discernable beginning or end to the plot. It’s all middle. Everything just happens, making it feel a little flat, inconclusive and anti-climatic.
The set design, on the other hand, is brilliant. The highly detailed mise en scène transforms the stage into countless different moments across different cities and different time periods. It can’t be an easy brief to fulfil, but designer Polly Sullivan has nailed it.
The music and SFX in the production are also impressive. They create epic tension and uneasiness throughout the show, achieving a greater level of engagement than perhaps the narrative deserves.
The play is very ambitious in its subject matter, but it’s so indulgent that it forgets to be interesting and entertaining. The attempts to be clever by jumping between different scenes over different years and revealing connections between every character just don’t work. And at nearly three hours in duration, with two breaks, it is unnecessarily long.
Though there are good elements to Describe the Night, it is probably one to miss.
Photo: Marc Brenner
Describe the Night is at Hampstead Theatre from 30th April until 9th June 2018. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.