The sound of the sea peacefully lapping the Crimean shore welcomes audiences into the Hampstead auditorium for Penny Gold’s new play The President’s Holiday. Its calm belies the events it will soon witness. It is 1991 and Mikhail Gorbachev is enjoying holidaying with his family. When all communications are cut and armed guards arrive, something is very wrong. Matthew Amer attended the first night.
Gold has based this new play, a co-production with the Nuffield theatre, Southampton, on the diaries of Raisa Gorbacheva; so what we see, we see from the perspective of the president’s wife, distilled through Gold’s imagination. How much is fact and how much conjecture is unsure, but what we are left with is a Mikhail Gorbachev who is an idealist, refusing to face up to the reality that those around him fear will come to fruition.
This snapshot of a president portrays a calm, thinking man who, in the face of kidnap and military coup holds onto his nerve and thoughts, and strives to find a solution for himself and for ‘the people’; a man who, even under house arrest, continues to give orders as though he is running the show.
Julian Glover, as the former president of the USSR, is an imposing presence, striding dominantly about the sitting room in which the bulk of the action takes place. Though he may talk about ‘the people’ while his wife sows a traditional Georgian dress, the room’s trappings, as designed by Robin Don, give away his lofty position.
Raisa, played by Isla Blair, is his rock, the classic first lady. Almost as calm in the face of armed guards as Gorbachev, Blair’s performance gives us a stoic woman who hides her own fears and anxieties to help her husband.
This relationship is at the centre of the play as much as any discussion of world politics – though idealism, socialism, capitalism and totalitarianism are all given a good going over in the scenes between Gorbachev and Robert Demeger’s glum, double-crossing KGB agent Plekhanov. In fact, with news of the outside world cut off to the Gorbachevs, and subsequently the audience, the attention is drawn to a regular family having to cope with an outrageous situation. One of the world’s most powerful men becomes a simple Grandpa, pulling chocolate drops out of thin air to the amusement of his grandchildren.
Between scenes, the current coup is echoed by snippets of the fate of Czar Nicholas II, as Gold draws parallels between the two regime changes.
The knowledge of how the production must end drains some of the tension away from proceedings, but takes nothing away from the insight into the reaction of a family under the most stressful of circumstances.
The President’s Holiday plays at Hampstead until 16 February.