Our theatres are flinging open their doors again, so it’s only natural to hurtle back towards them, arms outstretched. There’s a peculiar irony, though, about A Russian Doll, Cat Goscovitch’s new play, which opened yesterday at the Barn Theatre in Cirencester. This industrious rural venue has led the way with a series of groundbreaking digital offerings since the pandemic began. And yet, although their first attendable offering of the year can be streamed, if any show had warranted a radical, innovative, tech-savvy spin, it was this one.
Goscovitch has scripted a well-researched, short and droll – if conventional – monologue about life in a Russian online “troll factory” where the prime manufacturing export is political mischief. Actually, as twentysomething Masha (Rachel Redford) explains, to describe the Internet Research Agency in St Petersburg (accused by the US of meddling in the 2016 presidential election) as a “troll factory” undersells the sophistication of its activities. This isn’t simply a case of being combative on social media, she says: “I didn’t troll people, I became them – that’s a higher art.”
In the run-up to the 2016 EU referendum, Masha – a hard-up, Brontë-loving student of literature – slides down a slippery slope into Machiavelli mode. Exchanging scruples for rubles, she adopts British personae and posts online some innocuous items about baking mixed with “mild anti-European rhetoric”. Before you can say dezinformatsiya, she’s slyly engaging an “influencer” with 500,000 supporters, using a sexual harassment story to stoke Islamophobia and concern about Turkey’s would-be accession to the EU – and potentially bolstering the Brexit vote.
When the Leave result rolls in, a triumphant Masha takes credit as part of the victorious cyber-army – a claim that will be caviar for any Remainer conspiracists in the audience, though real-world confirmation of such targeted (and decisive) meddling is still proving elusive. James Graham’s TV drama Brexit: The Uncivil War, which foregrounded the Dominic Cummings factor, has already trumped Goscovitch’s take. Besides, maybe the UK just wanted Brexit? And by shifting responsibility from the Kremlin to the (fictional) factory bosses trying to play the markets, A Russian Doll misses a chance to assess Russia’s long-term strategy of sowing discord in the West.
It’s presented on a stylish, office-like set; director Nicolas Kent used to run the Tricycle (now Kiln) in north-west London, and has form in staging political productions. Goscovitch’s piece, meanwhile, bears a passing affinity to Good, the 1981 play written by her father CP Taylor, which showed how an ordinary German citizen becomes embroiled in the Nazi machine.
A Russian Doll lacks Good’s dramatic edge. Its anti-heroine shifts inconsistently between guilty concern and defiant compliance. Still, there are sobering insights into the mechanics of personal data-harvesting – beware those baiting online quizzes – and it’s all delivered by Redford’s smart-dressed Masha with a forthright confidence and a heavy, Bond-villain Russian accent. “This isn’t just one Trojan horse moving into a city – this is millions of Trojan horses, living and breathing in every home,” she bluntly advises. We have been warned.