Soulpepper brings pointedly “relevant” play to the Toronto stage
Set in the Russian Revolution of 1905 and based on a true story, The Just (currently onstage at Soulpepper) tracks the actions of a group of Socialist-Revolutionaries as they undertake the assassination of Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich. It questions idealism and political dogma while also humanizing the people who commit acts of terrorism. In today’s current global situation, with the endlessly complex conflict in Syria, it’s the right time for this production.
The Just was written by Camus who, after an early flirtation with communism, spent the rest of his life being critical of it. This production is a new translation by Bobby Theodore, and is, predictably with Soulpepper, a carefully thought-out and detailed piece of work with superlative performances and magical stagecraft.
Boris (Diego Matamoros) is the leader of the group; Yanek (Gregory Prest) is a buoyant poet who will throw the first bomb; Dora (Raquel Duffy) is the bomb-maker who suppresses her love of Yanek so they can devote themselves to the cause; Voinov (Peter Fernandes) is a very young man who is to throw the second bomb; and Stepan (Brendan Wall) has just escaped from a prison stint that has left him deeply embittered.
They believe strongly that killing the Grand Duke is for the betterment of the people of Russia; that it’s an important step in the noble cause of freeing the peasants from poverty and the tyranny of their autocratic government (at the time, headed by the last Tsar, Nicholas II). However, Yanek balks at his first opportunity because the Duke’s neice and nephew are with him, and the rest agree that killing kids is bad for their image — except Stepan. Stepan, his back scarred from regular whippings administered in prison, is now driven by nothing but hatred of the regime. The children of the ruling class are fair game for him.
The others all also come from backgrounds of relative comfort. Dora went to university, and Voinov too, though he was recently expelled for expressing anti-Tsarist sentiment. Yanek drove a carriage in the Ukraine. We do not know Stepan’s background, but we know that he is the only one to have seen starving children.
This exposes their hypocrisy in engaging in violence “for the people.” “The people” are the peasants, who don’t get go to school or drive carriages. “The people” didn’t ask this group, or the Socialist Revolutionary Party in general, to murder anyone on their behalf. The group, except possibly Stepan, is taking extreme action on behalf of a class to which they don’t belong.
In the middle of alley seating, the set is rather spare, with one chair, a door, a Victrola, some hooks for hanging tuxedos and two windows. The apartment is a meeting place not a living space, and this serves to enhance the significance of every interaction with the physical elements. Piles of books add to the atmosphere of ideals that are better on paper than in blood, and these are also cleverly mobilized to become a map of the town during planning. A stuffed wolf’s head on the outside wall juxtaposed with that of a deer across from it also symbolizes the contradictions of the characters.
Soulpepper’s trademark stage magic comes into play when the bomb goes off at the end of the first act, and continues into the second act as the scene changes to the prison where Yanek is now held. Chains, grates, real water echoing as it splashes below, and other elements combine to represent both the stifling claustrophobia of a jail cell, and the vast emptiness of a meaningless existence.
This is where religion rears its head in the narrative, and Yanek is presented with an atrocious choice under pressure from the Grand Duchess (Katherine Gauthier) and the chief of police (Matamoros again.) He manages not to compromise his values, but it’s hard to say any good comes of it.
Terrorism doesn’t fix any problems in the play, and history tells us that the eventually successful Revolution of 1917 only brought a host of new hardships to the Russian people. In The Just we can see how these characters became misguided and an example of discourse that grows a valid indignation against injustice into something large and indiscriminately dangerous. This is sadly still relevant.
- The Just is onstage at Soulpepper, Young Centre for The Performing Arts, 50 Tank House Lane, until March 26
- Showtimes are Monday through Saturday at 8 pm with 2 pm matinees on Wednesdays and Saturdays
- Tickets start at $32
- Purchase tickets at at 416-866-8666 or online
Photo of Diego Matamoros & Raquel Duffy by Cylla von Tiedemann