Novichok on stage: an interview7 min read

Earlier this year, London’s HUNCHtheatre announced the debut of a new play about the 2018 novichok poisonings in Salisbury, England. The show, titled To See Salisbury, brings a whimsical view of the event – the knowns and unknowns – to stages in the United Kingdom and the United States. Working in collaboration with Stage RC and expatriate Russian satirist Victor Shenderovich, the show promises to be provocative and insightful.

Lossi 36 Assistant Editor-in-chief Louis Train sat down with HUNCHtheatre co-founders Oliver Bennett and Vladimir Shcherban to ask about their vision, their work, and the questions they don’t know how to answer.

In your words: What happened in Salisbury in March, 2018?

Oliver Bennett: Well, someone was nearly killed, and someone did die. That’s all we know.

Vladimir Shcherban: This story, it’s a kind of mystery. No one knows, actually, what happened there. There’s still the question if they’re alive, these victims, or if they’re dead, and what happened. We know just what they allowed us to know, TV presenters and politicians. That’s why we like this question: What happened there?

OB: What I like about the show is that we absolutely do not know what happened there. All we know is that there’s lots of competing stories. Lots of competing scraps of narrative about what happened. None of these stories really makes sense. This project takes some of the scraps, and maybe rearranges them into some kind of crazy, surreal, funny order and sees if that makes sense. Cause the stories we’re given don’t make sense.

VS: We’re working with a text by Victor Shenderovich, who is a famous Russian TV presenter. He used to host this sort of Muppet Show-type programme, a political satire. Now he’s kind of banned in Russia, so he’s here.  When we saw the script, we were surprised that no one had written a play about it already. It seems like in Britain, every second person is a playwright. What [Shenderovich] did is really funny – he made a connection with Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which is also about two people who are sent to kill someone.

OB: It’s imaginative!

VS: It starts from this Russian-British conflict, this adventure, let’s say, but finally it turns to identity and fake news, which is a problem in all countries. In Russia, in Britain, you can’t understand what is true and what is a lie.

OB: Even the people in the situation don’t know the truth. Even the people who are doing the crimes don’t know what they’re doing or why they’re doing it. Even their bosses don’t know. That’s sort of the conceit of the show.

VS: What Shenderovich did, because these two guys who visited Salisbury, this play is based on their interview for Russia Today. What if everything that this pair told us – what if it’s true? And it makes the story funny and controversial. Cause no one knows what happened there.

Is that true? There seems to be a lot of people who are very confident that there was an assassination attempt.

OB: We’re artists, we’re not investigators. We’re not after the facts. We’re not in direct contact with the raw material, with the facts. I think what artists do is take stories and show them in a different light. And what Shenderovich’s text does is reflect back the story, the narrative, that we’ve been given. Like, what if that is true? What would that be like?

So your show is responding more to the discourse, then, to the events?

VS: Yeah.

OB: Yeah.

Interesting. So maybe you can talk me through the genesis of the project. When you first heard about this, as it was happening, did you think, ‘This should be a play!’?

OB: We wanted to call our company Novichok, actually.

Oof, poor taste, no?

VS: Yeah, everyone would  have decided we are Russian spies. We discussed it but I don’t think we thought of making any kind of shows. We weren’t confident with this story. We thought it was such a crazy story. No one knows what to say, even now. That’s why I was surprised when finally a play from Russia appeared on this topic. Only after this I thought maybe…

How did it come to you?

OB: From Stage RC.

VS: They just sent it and said, no, maybe, it’s too hot a topic, we might get in trouble. But when I read it a few times, I realised, no, it’s good, it’s good. Definitely it’s not an answer, what happened there, but it’s a good point to discuss this kind of informational war everywhere. And this fake news, and this self-identity. And how we fill each event with our own expectations – all sides.

OB: And it’s interesting having the Russian perspective.

VS: For me, it was important that it was by a Russian person. A local could write it, but that’s quite predictable. It’s kind of a victim of propaganda.

OB: This makes it a more complicated perspective. I actually worked in Salisbury as an actor at their main theatre, and I know the artistic director. When this project first came about, I contacted him, and asked, “Is this something you’d be interested in?” and he said, “Absolutely not!” He’d been told by the councils and the government in Salisbury not to go near this topic.

VS: A few days ago the BBC finally decided to make a TV series about Salisbury.

OB: That was the other thing about when we started doing it, and I watched the BBC Panorama documentary on it, and I was really shocked by the propaganda of it. It was like sort of a praising hymn to the British Services, how they’d managed to get there so quickly, how they dealt with it so well, how the medical team dealt with it so well. Our intelligence service dealt with it so well. And I felt like, if I was watching this on Russia Today about Russia I would just think it was a piece of bullshit propaganda.

Neither of you feels that you’re just sharing the Russian propaganda?

VS: No.

OB: No.

VS: Not at all.

OB: If anything, it’s like a sort of anti-Putin activist perspective. The play is strongly critical of Putin, of power.

VS: Putin actually is also a victim of this system which no one understands, or why the system exists at all.

Which system?

VS: I mean kind of the political system in Russia. But I feel like it’s not just about Russia, but about all these post-Soviet territories’ political systems.

OB: He’s poking at Russian identity all of the time. Russia’s view of itself as a huge power in the world. It’s like playing with this.

What kinds of reactions have you gotten so far?

OB: Really, really good reactions. We did one preview last year. It was a majority Russian audience. And their reaction was good. People really liked it. The Russians really liked that this was being talked about on the British stage. They like that that perspective was being given a platform.

VS: It was a really interesting experience for me because, as I mentioned, this is a co-production with Stage RC, who work usually with Russian theatre in London. So we decided to create two shows: one in Russian and one in English.

OB: The Russian version is actually going around America in a few weeks, and then the English version we’re doing at my old school, RADA, at their main theatre, from the 27th of June to the 6th of July.

VS: People were really excited because it wasn’t propaganda. Not British, not Russian. It was about self-identity, about truth and lies, et cetera, et cetera. Some people really try to avoid all political issues, which is absolutely fine. Our audience is quite a mixture of different kinds of people. I’m really glad that people who always avoid political issues in theatre, they said they were excited. Despite the fact that it is quite a strong political reference. I guess that’s the main goal of this show: to channel a more general question. Now it looks like a Pinter or Beckett story.

OB: We made it a kind of internal story about people who don’t know what’s going on – which is all of us.

Louis Train is a graduate student at the School of Politics, Economics, and International Relations at the University of Reading and the faculty of International Relations at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. His main areas of interest are diplomatic negotiations, Russian foreign policy, cultural diplomacy, and the arts and culture in politics.