Omon Ra

(Visy Theatre)


Adapted by Marcel Dorney from Viktor Pelevin’s novel

Into the detritus of ’50s suburbia – wire bed frames, dead refrigerator, battered radiogram, rusting hand-mower, folding wheelchair – explode two thirteen-year-old boys, holding toy aeroplanes and playing nuclear war.

Flash (literally) to the same young men some years later, enrolled in a Russian space school for the first steps of their training as cosmonauts. It’s just after the American moon landing, and the Soviet authorities are very angry at being pipped at the post – even though they had no serious plans in hand for a similar project – and are about to up the ante. And the young men who enter the training program ain’t seen nuttin’ yet, because not only are the training staff tougher than the Marines, they’re all totally crazy, and most of them have steel rods where their knee-caps used to be.

The very talented team of playwright Marcel Dorney and director Nic Dorward, founder of Restaged Histories, have come up trumps with their acerbic comic-book rendition of the Soviet side of the space race. The idea behind the Restaged Histories project is to retell vintage stories using modern theatrical techniques, and the result is a slap-stick Russian version of Hogan’s Heroes with a chilling undertone because, for all of its clowning around, it’s deadly stuff they are dealing with here, and the ambitious young cosmonaut is doomed to die 15 seconds after he sets the tracking device on the moon.

But is he really on the moon? Did the American really land there in 1969, anyway, and was the whole enterprise just a glorious hoax? These were relevant questions for the time, and there are still conspiracy theorists around who believe it ain’t necessarily so, all of which gives the play a nice satirical sub-text as the actors go through their various changes from one manic character into another.

A lovely romp, therefore, and a chance for these four very fine young actors (there was no program, so unfortunately I can’t tell you who they are) to explore their own possibilities as half-blind war hero, cynical opportunist, wide-eyed gullible child and increasingly disillusioned volunteer, making their way through, and playing around with, the magnificent clutter of Kieran Swan’s retro-grunge set.< BR>
There are deeper existential issues lurking here, though, and one of the greatnesses of the play is the way it makes the audience swing from raucous hilarity to kick-in-the-gut silence. “What is truth?” asked jesting Pilate, and that immortal question raises its ugly head again here, for how can we believe in these idiot characters, and their space shuttle made of a flash-light, an old ironing board and a bakelite telephone?

Is this really happening, or are they (as is suggested in the text) just an idea in the mind of the universe, who can disappear at the blink of said Universe’s metaphorical eye? Even worse, are they (as they appear to us in the audience) merely an idea in the mind of the novelist and playwright, who are using them (and us, as audience) as tools in an elaborate and spooky game?

Omon Ra has a far greater depth of metaphysical understanding than its frenetic surface comedy would suggest. Tangentially it plays with the idea of the hero and his (in this play at least) heroic act – are they really at the heart of the universe, or are they both futile attempts to fight what is in reality cosmic chaos? Does “a single heroic act at the centre of the universe” become the centre of the universe, or is it only in the eye of the beholder?

We’re not allowed to ponder too deeply on these questions, however, for the action rollicks from one crisis to another, and the story pulls us along with its own velocity. –

So enjoy it as a clever but ultimately meaningless romp, or be very very afraid – it’s a great little piece of inventive theatre, and I hope we see a lot more of Restaged Histories and their shrewd retellings of events in the past that make us think about the blackness of our own present.

Directed by Nic Dorward

Playing Tuesday – Saturday until 4 February at 8pm, with Saturday matinees at 2pm

Duration: 85 minutes, no interval

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Tue 24th January 2006)