You need an iron constitution for David Ian Lee’s harrowing drama The Curing Room, which opened at Islington’s Pleasance Theatre this week.
It’s one of the grimmest plays you’ll ever see but, when it’s over, you’re left wondering pondering about human resilience. How far would any of us go to hold on to life?
There’s a possibility that the story, which was a huge hit at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival, is based on a real incident but it appears more anecdotal that backed up by hard facts.
Set in 1944 Poland, the Nazis are on the run and, for some completely inexplicable reason, a group of seven Soviet soldiers have been captured and thrown, naked, into the empty cellar and left to die.
The door is impenetrable and they have nothing but hope that they will be rescued.
At first their spirits are high. They wrestle, sing songs, and maintain some semblance of routine.
But the days tick by and their resolve begins to buckle. In order to survive they have to eat. The desperate and starving men must contemplate the ultimate taboo – cannibalism.
From then on the stage becomes a charnel house, littered with bloody bones and the remains of bodies.
As I said, it’s gruesome and not for the faint-hearted (a still-warm corpse being gutted is particularly unpleasant).
The Curing Room (the title comes from the former use of the cellar) is a shocking production with brave performances from the cast of seven men.
Do they need to be naked? Is the stage direction there to shock or titillate or is it a valid part of the production?
It certainly heightens the prisoners’ vulnerability. Their uniforms are stripped away but the renowned discipline of the well-drilled Red Army remains – to the end.
I won’t give too much away except to say that there are considerably fewer prisoners by the end of their 37-day ordeal and it isn’t necessary the survival of the fittest.
Throughout the 90-minute performance (no interval) we learn nothing but snatches about the incarcerated men.
Will Bowden gives a masterly turn as “Animal Killer” Leon Drossov, a violent psychopath, who kills without a qualm.
Super-fit and determined to survive Drossov prowls the cellar. He’s a brute, slapping down the other men who he sees as weaker than himself.
During one exchange he drops to the floor and does an impressive number of press-ups while the others carry on talking.
Rupert Elmes’ Captain is drawn very much from the British officer class. He’s likable but ineffectual and indecisive. A pen-pusher put in charge of real ground troops. Out of his depth but respected purely because of his rank.
The most sympathetic character is the weakest. Thomas Holloway makes a real impact as the simple Yuri, giving a compelling performance in his first professional role.
The Curing Room doesn’t make easy watching and, after a repeated number of bloody exchanges, I wished director Joao de Sousa had taken the red pen and cut a few scenes.
The opening scene, too, is laboured with too much dialogue as the men address each other by their very long rank and name.
Darkly disturbing, violent and bleak but The Curing Room is, nonetheless, a powerful and absorbing production.
Running until November 9.