MOSCOW — In a rare examination of a contemporary issue on the Russian stage, a Moscow theatre has opened a new play about a lawyer whose death in jail aged 37 just last year sent shockwaves around Russia.
The play, "One Hour, 18 Minutes" portrays the death of Sergei Magnitsky from heart failure in a Moscow prison, a tragedy that prompted calls for urgent prison reform from President Dmitry Medvedev.
Magnitsky, who suffered from cholecystitis, was awaiting trial in a Moscow prison in a tax evasion case involving the US-owned Hermitage investment fund where he worked.
After he died in November, it emerged that officials had ignored his repeated pleas for medical treatment and better conditions.
Investigators reacted by launching a criminal case and Medvedev pushed through amendments to end the imprisonment of those being investigated for white-collar economic crimes.
The audience crowded into the black-painted basement theatre for the premiere Saturday, some standing in the aisles, despite a total lack of advertising.
The play lasts just 36 minutes, with matter-of-fact monologues building up to a shocking climax.
Young actors at the Teatr.doc theatre, known for its provocative analysis of social issues such as AIDS, played the roles of investigators, medical staff and judges involved in Magnitsky's case.
Daringly, the monologues gleaned from interviews and the findings of an independent investigation use the real names of participants, from judges to medical staff and an investigator. Magnitsky himself does not appear in the drama.
An actor playing interior ministry investigator Oleg Silchenko has a cynical swagger.
"He was a lawyer for thieves. When we write 'businessman', we read 'thief,'" he quips. "If he had really been ill, he would have collaborated with us."
An actor playing judge Alexei Krivoruchko from Moscow's Tverskoi district court confides: "If you want me to be honest, no I don't feel at all sorry for him."
Judge Krivoruchko extended Magnitsky's arrest and took no action in response to his letters asking for medical treatment and complaining of prison conditions, his relatives and supporters say.
The drama imagines that Krivoruchko is now in Magnitsky's place and is begging for a cup of boiling water -- a simple request from the lawyer that the judge turned down.
"Be human, you can't behave like that to a person," the actor playing the judge pleads.
Director Mikhail Ugarov said he is not afraid of reactions from officials
named in the play.
"This is a small play and a small theatre," he told AFP. "They will say 'let them talk.'"
The young actors said they were working for free because they saw the play as important.
"This is a rare chance to express my position while working in my profession," actor Alexei Krizhevsky, 33, who plays a doctor, told AFP after the show. "I hope this play will become a part of public life."
Askold Kurov plays a medical attendant, Sasha, who stood by without offering help as Magnitsky was dying, said he was "afraid of being in his character's place."
The character of Sasha in the play avoided questions about Magnitsky and gabbled about his new cell phone.
"I don't know how I would behave," Kurov said. "I want to believe I would behave differently, that I am a principled person and humane and that I don't have that criminal indifference."
Magnitsky's family supported the production, director Ugarov said.
"They gave us copies of letters from prison, the diary he kept, and we talked to them a lot," Ugarov told AFP. "For them it's important that the play exists, that young actors have felt what this story means."
Magnitsky "was simply a quiet, honest, stubborn person," Ugarov said.
"Any other person would have broken down or collaborated, but he quietly went on to the end. He is a classical hero according to all the definitions of drama."
Copyright © 2013 AFP. All rights reserved. More »