Anna Akhmatova began her career as a poet writing about love and loss. Those poems were immensely popular, but not very Soviet. This led to problems. Ironically, the Soviet persecution of Akhamatova and her family led the poet to write “Requiem,” one of the greatest poetic responses to Stalin’s terror. The life and words of Akhmatova have now been adapted for the stage by Rebecca Schull in On Naked Soil: Imagining Anna Akhamatova, currently playing Off-Broadway at the Theater for the New City.
Both writer and lead actor, Schull actually bears a striking resemblance to her subject. Perhaps best recognized for her role in Wings, Schull is something of an authority on the literature of the Great Terror, having previously adapted Yevgenia Ginzburg’s memoir of the Stalinist era. Her treatment of both poet and poetry is knowledgeable and respectful throughout Soil.
Structured something like a volume of poetry, Soil consists of one continuous act, broken into many short scenes, introduced by Akhamatova’s verse and photos projected on screens above the stage. The action alternates between the late 1930’s and the mid 1960’s. In the earlier scenes, Akhamatova befriends Lydia Chukovskaya, with whom she has much in common. Both are writers and have loved ones condemned to Stalin’s prisons. During the later sequences, Akhamatova reflects on her life with Nadezhda Mandelstam, the widow of poet Osip Mandelstam, with whom Akhamatova had her own history of a sort.
Schull deftly incorporates Akhmatova’s words into the play’s text, much of which is quite telling of the Soviet experience. She was blessed with excellent source material, since Chukovskaya recorded her time with Akhamatova in journals that were later published. We come to truly understand her later poetry when Schull quotes Akhamatova’s conversation with another woman queuing outside a Leningrad prison for news of those unjustly held within:
“’And can you describe this?’
And I answered:
‘Yes, I can.’
Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.”
That exchange would later become the prefatory material of her masterwork “Requiem.” Akhmatova’s life is important to remember for many reasons. Far too many are still willing to accept the early Soviet propaganda, believing the experiment only soured with Stalin’s ascendency. However, her experiences with Soviet oppression began in 1921 with the execution of her first husband, fellow poet Nikolai Gumilyov, well before the Stalin years. As is also quite clear in the staging of Soil, Akhamatova lived under constant surveillance, unable to speak freely in her own flat.
Despite the brevity of each mini-scene, the play starts slowly. However, as the richness of Akhmatova words unfold, the play picks up momentum. The projected verse and photos are nicely integrated into the production (but are somewhat undermined by the screens’ partially blocked sightlines).
Schull is completely believable as the noble, but still very human Akhmatova. As Mandelstam, Lenore Loveman conveys a hard-won wisdom that just seems appropriately Russian. As written, Chukovskaya too often functions simpy as a sounding board for Akhmatova, until late in the play, when the full significance of her visits is revealed. Schull compensates for a weak foil in those scenes, powerfully expressing Akhamatova’s anguish over her alienation from her imprisoned son, and her shame for trying to curry favor with Stalin on his behalf with poetry intended to appeal to the dictator’s personality cult.
More than history, Soil is about the words of one of the twentieth century’s greatest poets, who lived under one of the twentieth century’s least poetic regimes. It would be great to see Soil performed together with Schull’s Ginzburg play, but separately her Akhmatova work offers much to contemplate. Now open, Soil runs through May 4th.
(Photo credits: Jonathan Slaff)