THE ROMAN BATH
by Stanislav Stratiev in a version by Justin Butcher.
Arcola Theatre 27 Arcola Street E8 2DJ To 15 May 2010.
Mon-Sat 8pm Mat Sat 3pm.
Runs 2hr 5min One interval.
TICKETS: 020 7503 1646.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 3 May.
Jobsworths and the enterprising miss out on the point of a good bath.
Right now, The Roman Bath has the field to itself, in Britain at least, as an example of modern Bulgarian theatre. Written in 1974, and the author’s first play, it’s unsurprising to learn this is the work of someone from the world of satire, a not-always-easy existence, it can be imagined, in Soviet-controlled Bulgaria.
It’s reminiscent of Nicolai Erdman’s 1928 Russian satirical farce, The Suicide, which shows you can’t even die in peace. In Erdman’s play the central character announces he’s going to kill himself, only to have half the world descend upon him and demand he do it in the name of their cause.
Things are less severe, but still more than troublesome enough for Ivan Antonov, author Stanislav Stratiev’s central, put-upon common man character, when a unique Roman bath is discovered on his flat. Everyone sees the classical artefact as a way to advance themselves, starting with the scholar who works away on it for a career-making thesis. He’s Vasiliev MA (“I’ve an MA too,” Antonov protests, “My Apartment,” but it does him no good).
At least Ivan acquires a new girlfriend in Martha, neglected by Vasiliev as he works away. Meanwhile, there’s an intrusive TV crew, a secret entrepreneur who wants to make money by selling the bath abroad, and the local Communist Party boss, who sees it as a way of gaining kudos for his little area.
If the Party man satires Communist bureaucracy at the local level, even he’s outdone by the lifeguard who installs himself, whistle and all, on a stepladder, to enforce Bulgarian Health & Safety Regulations in the pool – despite it being a bath, having no water and no-one swimming in it. But he’s been told to be there, even if it means practising rescues on artificial situations, then demanding his docket be filled-out.
As the pace hots up, these characters become increasingly absorbed in their activities, ignoring Ivan and barely aware of the Bath, apart from its relevance to what they’re doing. Performances may have more energy than technical refinement, but energy’s what matters as Russell Bolam’s enjoyable production makes clear.
Ivan Antonov: Ifan Meredith.
Vasiliec MA: Bo Poraj.
Martha: Rhona Croker.
Lifeguard: Lloyd Woolf.
Deaf Mute/TV Assistant/Committee Member 2: Christopher Hogben.
Banev/TV Director: Jonathan Rhodes.
Party Rep/Workman 2: David Schaal.
Miss DiMatteo/TV Presenter: Wendy Wason.
Column/Workman 1/Committee Member 1: Richard Atwill.
Director: Russell Bolam.
Designer: Jean Chan.
Lighting: Tim Mascall.
Sound: Tom Gibbons.
Composer: Gary Yershon.
Movement: Clare McKenna.
Assistant director: Asia Osborne.
Associate designer: Ruth Hall.
*As a start Tantalus Books’ 2002 volume of four Contemporary Bulgarian Plays, including Stratiev’s The Bus Ride.