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The Cosmonaut’s Last Message to the Woman He Once Loved in the Former Soviet Union

The Evening Standard, 13th April 2005, Nicholas de Jongh

Two Soviet Union cosmonauts, floating through a starry night, all adrift in outer space, set the allegorical tone for David Greig’s intriguing meditation on our chronic failure to connect and communicate, despite inexhaustible desire for closeness. In form dreamlike and metaphoric, in style yoking the realistic, comic, fantastic and mystic, Greig effects spiritual and actual links between characters variously discovered in Edinburgh, London, Provence, Oslo and beyond our world.

The tensions and alienation of Tim Supple’s production are reinforced by Melly Still’s romantic stage set. Silver terrace doors, a backcloth of stars and black skies, cosmonauts on wires somersaulting or seemingly suspended in space, help achieve a more vivid atmosphere than during the play’s prosaic London run in 1999.

‘The Cosmonaut’s Last Message to the Woman He Once Loved in the Former Soviet Union’, as the full title has it, still needs the pruning of its more repetitive and irritating off-shoots, yet its obscurities matter less now that Greig’s ‘Pyrenees’ is being performed at the Menier Chocolate Factory. For that play serves as a kind of thematic preface to this. Its central character Keith, a middle-aged, married civil servant on the run from his own life, also appears in ‘The Cosmonaut’s Last Message’, though at an earlier chronological date.

Played with a suitable blend of ardour and discontent by Michael Pennington, Keith tires of his wife (Brid Brennan) and falls for Anna Madeley’s seductive Nastasja. The girl still mourning the loss of her cosmonaut father who vanished into the black hole of space when she was just six manages no more than a brief sexual lull with Keith before being passed on to Tom Goodman-Hill’s sinister, taciturn Norwegian, who is negotiating a peace treaty between two warring countries but cannot manage his own human relations.

The keynotes of existential loneliness are spectacularly and chillingly expressed by the doomed Soviet cosmonauts, Oleg and Casimir. Paul Higgins and Sean Campion ruefully, but misguidedly, play these space travellers with Scottish accents. The Russians know they will never return to Earth and variously hanker for a changed country, daughter and a brief-time lover. They set the paradigm for the play’s failed communicators, of whom Bernard, a space-agency scientist trying to communicate with aliens in space, makes the strangest impression in Greig’s poetic lament for life-losers.

Daily Express, 13th April 2005, Sheridan Morley

‘The Cosmonaut’s Last Message to the Woman He Once Loved’ is as strange as its title, so we had better start with what we know to be true.

Back in December 1991, as control of the Kremlin passed from Gorbachev to Yeltsin, a luckless Soviet astronaut was orbiting the earth. All the while he was wondering whether anybody down there still cared, or even if there would be a down there to go home to. And if so, run by whom?

That idea – of a spaceman lost in space because events on earth are no longer within the control of the people who sent him up there in the first place – might have made for an intriguing if bleakly funny play but it is not the one Greig has chosen to give us here.

True, there are a couple of bewildered spacemen hovering above the stage in the hope of finding out something, anything, about what is going on either around them or below them. But, as Tom Stoppard’s ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’, it seems they are doomed to know nothing and discover even less.

Instead, David Greig is concerned with the nature of loss: people lost in space, in relationships, in love, people lost in marriage or because strokes make them unable to communicate, people for whom language is a barrier and national identity a higher one. Only ‘Connect’ might have been a better title here, if it hadn’t already been used.

Nearly all of a strong cast at the Donmar Warehouse – led by Brid Brennan, Michael Pennington and Anna Madeley - play double roles. By the end we have met so many characters it is more than a little difficult to figure out which ones we are really supposed to connect with, though that of course is their problem too.

Greig is a young Scots dramatist with a good line in bleak encounters. He takes random snapshots of contemporary life and then wonders, with us, if they add up to anything very coherent. The problem is that he never quite manages to join up the dots, so we are left searching for a patter. His art is that of the short-story writer.

We are in need of a little more guidance if we are to start to care about any of it, let alone understand why communication proves so impossible even for those not on the ends of crackling two-way telephones.

Daily Mail, 13th April 2005, Quentin Letts

Ever since David Bowie’s song ‘Space Oddity’ I have been enthralled by the idea of the astronaut stuck in space.

Playwright David Greig was therefore at an immediate advantage with his brilliant title for this drama.

What does a doomed cosmonaut say to mission control after 12 years in space? Does he ask to be put in radio contact with his wife, or girlfriend, or mother, or daughter? Does he try to hold on, contemplate the world beneath him, or simply go bonkers?

What a great idea, and what an interesting night seemed to be in store at the normally slick Donmar. Wrong. David Greig probes so far into his own twilight zone that the poor ruddy theatregoer is left floating in a vacuum.

Much of the action takes place not in space but on Earth, where Michael Pennington plays a man with a mid-life crisis.

Anna Madeley plays his Russian girlfriend (who happens to be the daughter of the stranded cosmonaut).

Amid gratuitously coarse language, Tom Goodman-Hill does a stolid job as Eric, a Norwegian banker. Brid Brennan acts her heart out as a cuckolded wife and, later, as a lesbian-minded striper. Confused? So was I.

Miss Madeley, quite moving when she talks of her distant Daddy, is an exceedingly leggy number and keeps showing a lot of flesh.

Mr Pennington’s character also discards his clothes – all of them.

He does it when making an apparent suicide bid, which given the state of the plot at that point seems understandable.

Just to confuse matters even more, several of the actors double up with secondary roles.

The whole thing becomes as baffling as a scrambled signal from Star City to Mir.

At the core of it all I suspect there are clever reasons here about the loneliness of life and how we all live in solitary capsules. But Mr Greig’s conceits are so self-indulgent that they should never have been allowed near the launch pad.

The Times, 14th April 2005, Ian Johns

This is a busy month for David Greig. His latest play, ‘Pyrenees’, is running in London. His next drama, ‘The American Pilot’, for the Royal Shakespeare Company, is about to open in Stratford. Now we have this revival of a 1999 work that can seem as long and elusive as its title: ‘The Cosmonaut’s Last Message to the Woman He Once Loved in the Former Soviet Union’.

As someone might say in a Jerry Bruckheimer blockbuster: “What we have here, people, is a failure to communicate.”

All the characters in Greig’s play, from a pair of quarrelling cosmonauts stranded in forgotten orbit to a middle-aged couple, reach in vain to possess someone or something that cannot or will not respond.

In the first of a series of fateful associations with which Greig binds together the play’s transient world of airport lounges, hotels, strip clubs and suburban flats, Keith, a Scottish bureaucrat, is having an affair with the pole-dancer daughter of one of the cosmonauts. She then becomes the obsessive object of desire of Eric, a globe-trotting Norwegian banker.

Vivienne, Keith’s speech-therapist wife, later looks into her husband’s apparent suicide (a search continued in ‘Pyrenees’) and befriends a French scientist obsessed with UFOs. He thinks he has detected a faint signal from space. You can guess from where.

Greig sees us inhabiting separate orbits, sometimes intersecting but usually solitary and never far from loss. Into this tapestry of isolation, he ironically weaves common elements: the Scottish and Irish accents used regardless of nationality; jaunts to the Isle of Skye and watery suicides.

The play’s daisy chain of thematic motifs is initially intriguing but grows precious and finally sucks the life out of the characters. From the white noise of a broken TV to the frustration of a stroke victim trying to order his thoughts, every aspect in the play is a slavish servant to the same point about our struggle to make contact.

Tim Supple’s production, as cool and measured as the writing, has Paul Higgins and Sean Campion, as the sometimes mordantly funny spacemen musing on life, death and women, suspended across a starry sky above the earth-bound action. Michael Pennington, doubling as the errant Keith and the French boffin, Anna Madeley as the Russian daughter and a Scottish policewoman, and Brid Brennan as Vivienne and a lesbian dancer give some welcome vitality.

Yet at the end the human tales have become so fragmented and drawn out that the whole thing becomes lost in space. We’ve got the message but it’s hard to feel anyone’s pain. As we all know, in space no one can hear you scream.

The Daily Telegraph, 14th April 2005, Charles Spencer

The Scottish dramatist David Greig is 36 and has already written 37 plays. Even the wildly prolific Alan Ayckbourn didn’t achieve Shakespeare’s tally until he was 50, and it has to be admitted that Greig has come up with some stinkers in his time. More can sometimes mean less.

He is currently on a roll, however, and increasingly strikes me as one of the most interesting and adventurous British dramatists of his generation. His work ranges from the wildly avant-garde to the traditionally well-crafted, and you never know where he is going to jump next.

His superb play ‘Pyrenees’ is currently selling out at the Menier Chocolate Factory, and next month the RSC premières a new piece, ‘The American Pilot’, in Stratford.

The astute Donmar has clearly recognised that Greig is a writer whose time has come, and is offering this high-profile revival of  ‘The Cosmonaut’s Last Message to the Woman He Once Loved in the Former Soviet Union’, first seen in 1999. It blew me away than, and proves just as potent the second time around, combining wit with heartfelt emotion.

It seems typical of Greig that the piece never stays in the same place for long. The action ranges from Edinburgh to Oslo and Provence, from a pole-dancing club in Soho to a Russian space station where the two-man crew have lost contact with ground control and been orbiting the planet for the last 12 years, unaware that the Soviet Union no longer exists.

Other, apparently separate story lines concern a married, middle-aged Edinburgh civil servant, who has embarked on a tempestuous affair with an exotic dancer, a sinister peace negotiator from the World Bank, and an old scientist beaming messages into space in the hope of a response from UFOs.

Plot links and poignant leitmotifs bind the characters together (an impression intensified by the fact that the  same actors double up in different roles), and an overriding theme emerges of human loneliness and our desperate need to make contact with others.

Living in a stale marriage, Greig movingly suggest, can be just as desolate as drifting aimlessly in space. What all his characters seek is recognition and the fond return of love; and the writer displays a rare, unsentimental empathy for their plight.

Tim Supple’s production scores a theatrical coup in its portrayal of the two cosmonauts, floating weightlessly in space against a cyclorama of twinkling stars, but he and designer Melly Still are less successful at atmospherically establishing the wide variety of locations on earth.

There are some terrific performances though, from Paul Higgins and Sean Campion as the abandoned lovelorn cosmonauts, and from Michael Pennington and Brid Brennan as the unhappily married couple, whose story is further developed in ‘Pyrenees’, the second part of a planned trilogy.

Best of all is the sensationally alluring Anna Madeley as the spunky Russian pole-dancer Nastasja, desperately yearning for her father, lost in space. Here’s a star in the making if ever I saw one.

Teletext, 14th April 2005, Ian Shuttleworth

The finest play in London at the moment is ‘Pyrenees’ by David Greig: a beautiful resonant piece about how people do and don’t make contact with one another, physically, emotionally and verbally.

It’s a glorious coincidence that, in the same month, another venue has revived Greig’s 1999 play with two of the latter piece’s main characters. They make a magnificent pairing, even in quite different productions.

‘The Cosmonaut’s Last Message to the Woman He Once Loved in the Former Soviet Union’ – to give it its full title – contains several plot strands.

Middle-aged Keith, realising his affair with young Russian Nastasja is doomed, fakes suicide and vanishes. She hooks up with the financier Eric, while Keith’s wife begins a long search for him.

Nastasja’s “loneliness” is because her father is “in the sky” these 12 years. Casimir is not dead and in heaven, though: he’s in a Soviet space station, stranded with another cosmonaut. When the political map was redrawn, the two of them were left up there, forgotten.

They continue orbiting the earth; unable to communicate with the loved ones they can hardly even remember.

The two actors hang suspended in harnesses, behind a gauze which doubly separates them from the other action.

Greig’s great skill is that he doesn’t lay it all out for you, but nor does he make you feel he’s forcing you to labour at decoding the play’s message.

He works by hints, echoes and leaving gaps between the lines – and before you know it, you’re immersed in a rich symphony of thoughts and feelings.

He’s probably the most consistently fascinating Scottish playwright working today, and I’m an unashamed fan.

This play works less well than the companion piece. It’s a bigger canvas, which means you need to stand further off in order to get the whole picture, if you see what I mean.

Nevertheless, it’s a thing of beauty, and the cast – including Brid Brennan, Michael Pennington and Anna Madeley – are pretty uniformly strong.

More people should know about David Greig’s work and this is a fine way to start.

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