We are the Himalayas – Brave New Word theatre company and the courage of dissent (Theatre Review)

We are the Himalayas

Brave New Word Theatre Company

3rd July to the 27th of July. You can grab your tickets here.

For Alain Badiou, when we collectively count the dead of a Gulag or of the Cultural Revolution, we must include the dead of Capitalism (from colonialism to world wars and proxy wars) and it is this level of integrity that Mark Langham seeks to invite when he offers us his stand out play, We Are The Himalayas. Based on the story of Anna Larina who rewrote history concerning her husband after his forced confession and death under Stalin, We are the Himalayas follows on from a number of ‘Russia’ themed productions in 2019 that examine the nature of truth telling and popular narrative. At its surface, narratives about forced confessions, media controls and fake news are intended to tarr Donald Trump with the same brush we’ve tarred communism in the past. But Mark Langham takes this surface level issue deeper by evoking the sinister shadow of Lavrenty Beria (played by Steve Corner who is having a stand out year) and informs us that all communists are not equal. This then is the true value of We are the Himalayas. We find ourselves rooting for the Bolshevik’s and discovering that not all communisms are alike. For those of us passionate about communism, socialism or any theory that might be in opposition to capitalism, it’s refreshing and quite thrilling to spend an hour and a half or so in the theatrical company of great revolutionaries who fought passionately for essential ideals. All of us, particularly those of us on the left in Australia, have felt that we have no choice but to consent to the capitalist parliamentary present.

The way Mark Langham and Brave New Word theatre company present the Anna Larina story, the failures of communism can be treated as stages in the realization of an idea, much like an artist or a scientist working their way through their early failures. For Mark Langham’s persuasive dialogue to grasp us, we must choose between communisms – and it is this radical idea that makes We are the Himalayas so powerful a play. Sitting in that small theatre, in Sydney Australia, watching these actors play these roles, contains the thrilling twinge of revolution – something we in property-obsessed Australia feel all too rarely.

Herein lies the great strength of Richard Cornally’s direction and the courage of Brave New Word Theatre company and Luke Holmes to produce such a play in Kings Cross Sydney. On that very land (Gadigal Land) we have lost so much to property owners over the past decade, what better location for the production than an artist shared space in the vicinity of Kings Cross? Those who view this clever play have the opportunity to see that the communist hypothesis is not confined to its Stalinist sequence. Kings Cross is a Sydney cultural icon. It does not only belong to those who can afford to buy a piece of it. But those of us working in art or culture have watched Sydney’s Kings Cross reduced to chic menus, reasonable closing times and clean streets devoid of the potent core of its sexual vibrancy from the wildness of live music and daring nightclubs to its essential resistance to heteronormativity. What is this other than a brutal suppression of the commune? We leave it to the churches we damn to care for those who slip through the cracks of Potts Point’s sexy new façade while we cry over closed music and theatre venues.

When Richard Cornally takes We are the Himalayas and draws it into this theatre space at this time in history (when this bourgeois country has just elected a conservative government when conservatives are calling forth their ugliness) he taps into Lenin’s speech about climbing the mountain, and the malicious joy of those who hope to see the climber fall. No wonder our artists struggle not to give way to despondency. No wonder we watch the exquisite performance of Charlotte Chimes as Anna Larina and feel a corresponding vibration in our soul. No wonder we listen in horror as Nikolai Bukharin (Ben Mathews) declares he will return with his wife to certain death, rather than abandon child and country. It takes a play like We are the Himalayas drawn down into a small back room to properly teach us who we are and the importance of what we do.

Fortunately for Sydney-siders, We are the Himalayas has moved into an extended season. Settling into the new found artists space at the former World Bar, this play is the perfect opportunity for us to all put our money where our mouth is and support this newly-vamped theatre space. This is a production laced with great performances from it’s main cast through to its satellite characters. Enormities are evoked by Emilia Stubbs Grigoriou as Victoria, Chelsea Klein (who does a vast amount with an under written character) as Nina and James Gordon as Ilya Ehrenberg. These three performances contain great historical moments and possibly resonate the most with those of us watching in Sydney today.

Of the three main characters, immediately noticeable is the striking physical resemblance to the historical double. Particularly Charlotte Chimes as Anna Larina, who gives a resounding performance as the muse like wife of the great Nikolai Bukharin. Steve Corner looks less like Lavrenty Beria (he will be thrilled to know) but calls forth so much predatorial cruelty he starts to look every bit the (in)famous brute via performance. Finally, Ben Mathews as Nikolai Bukharin takes on the appearance of his namesake and gives up a wonderful performance as the admirable revolutionary.

We are the Himalayas is a refreshing look at the great communist experiment that encourages us to see what happens to the human creature under different styles of social pressure. Partly frightening and partly exposing, it offers up a refreshing take on Russian communism and reminds us that narratives are not always as they seem, and that the story we tell ourselves about the events transpiring in front of us are as important as the stories we wish to refute. This is a complex and beautiful play, that all Sydney artists should see, not to mention anyone interested in modern day socialism or Russian history.