If there is just one play you go and watch during your time in Oxford – let this be it.
Co-directed by Thomas Bailey and Emma D’Arcy, The Cosmonaut’s Last Message To The Woman He Once Loved In The Former Soviet Union breathes the language of cinema, with fast-paced scenes playing out the lives of two stranded cosmonauts, orbiting the lives of two couples beneath them; each clinging to others, false messages, and the faint but longed for hope of connection. Everything feels in orbit.
The physical space is beautiful (set design by Joel Scott-Halkes); a monumental white circular backdrop painting the impression of a blank vastness – the monotony of human fragility perpetuates beneath it. The projections (Rosamund Lakin) are equally well considered; they put into stark relief the lack of sensuality endured in the spaceship, paralleled with the couples’ life on earth where a backdrop of familiar airport signage, trees or cityscapes provides the normal clutter of colour and spaces we are used to seeing in the corner of our eye.
The cosmonauts, Oleg and Casimir (Will Lewis and Mark Mindel), are delicately and colourfully portrayed, rising from their sleeping tomb-like positions at the start of each scene, and skilfully conveying their tragic limbo.
The homoerotic tension felt between the cosmonauts does feel quite applied, as their speech doesn’t seem to reflect it, but this is partially forgotten as we witness each smell and touch becoming a more distant memory for them, a memory destroying their own past through the nature of its fictitiousness and forgetfulness. The pornographic playing cards used by the cosmonauts so aptly demonstrate this tragedy of memory; Oleg’s treasured card, reminiscent of the woman he loved, becomes so worn and touched that the image starts to fade away. The cosmonaut’s last message is of course never said, as there is nothing left to say.
D’Arcy and Wingfield’s performance as Vivienne and Bernard is also beautifully played. The lack of communication between the French man and Scottish woman is so deftly handled that when Bernard switches to speaking English, and both speak the same language, just for a moment you don’t realise that you can understand everything being said, so palpable is the lack of understanding and a common language between the two.
I would have liked to have seen more attention paid to costume, for although it was clearly intended to remain understated, in the case of the policewoman and the prostitutes it simply became a distraction. The characters were better placed in a student night out than the red light district.
D’Arcy and Bailey have chosen a challenging and complex play, but they expertly negotiate tight scene changes and the use of sound and video to leave us with the sense of an eternal orbiting.
You can feel the actors clamour to be ‘taken in’ by each other, to touch each other’s souls; but watch as they spin around each other helplessly.
This beautifully directed play is a rarity in the quality of all elements of its production, the talented acting amidst the set, projections and sound – one that is not to be missed under any circumstances.
The Cosmonaut’s Last Message To The Woman He Once Loved In The Former Soviet Union runs from 21 – 25 May in the Keble O’Reilly Theatre, starting from 7.30pm each evening. Tickets £8/£6