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Theatre Journal 54.3 (2002) 479-480
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Gagarin Way. By Gregory Burke. Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Scotland. 1-25 August 2001.
With Gagarin Way, Scottish theatre has become sufficiently inventive and universal to attract notice on the world stage. Despite the performers' heavy dialects and all sorts of jokes lamenting regional food and climate, this play is more than just an exercise in local color. As Scottish playwrights have been doing for decades, Gregory Burke overturns notions of a quaint, Brigadoon-esque Scotland and instead creates a modern industrial setting infused with the terrors of rampant consumerism and modern day masculinities that could easily be set anywhere in the West. Burke's articulate ninety-minute play addresses issues of anarchism, Marxist and Hegelian theory, the crisis in masculinity, and the futility of both the forty-hour work week and the individual political act—no small feat for a first time playwright. [After its run at the Edinburgh Festival and England's Royal National Theatre, Gagarin Way transferred to London's West End in March 2002. Ed.]
In this pessimistic comedy Gagarin Way, two disillusioned factory workers kidnap and ultimately execute an upper-management type because they have deluded themselves into thinking that they can change the course of capitalist history. Exhausted family man Gary wants to get his anti-globalization message across to the populace, while self-educated tough-guy Eddie engages in violence and political terrorism more as a recreational experiment. Burke adds to the fracas Tom, an idealistic security guard who has just graduated from university with a degree in politics, and Frank, a world-weary big businessman, and creates a volatile cocktail of seething masculinities and crushed ideals that can only end Tarrentino-style in multiple pools of blood. [End Page 479]
The play's title refers to a street honoring the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in the small, once radically socialist Scottish town Lumphinnans, one of the few "Little Moscows" in Britain. Years later, the nearly forgotten street stands as a strangely potent metaphor for the rise of capitalism and the subsequent plunge of the working class into a state of chronic nihilism. The heady juxtapositions that permeate Gagarin Way—communism and capitalism, existentialism and realism, anarchy and inaction—are actively debated by the play's participants in a stark computer factory setting. Perhaps most striking is Burke's ability to make the characters so irresistible to each other; despite their determined, psychotic, petrified, or fatigued exteriors, each becomes curious enough about the others to discover that they all share a common geo-political heritage and really are not that different at all. This mutual attraction and the play's emphasis on intimate dialogue and minimal blocking in the No-Exit-like warehouse environs make Frank's and Tom's deaths that much more poignant, though still completely unsurprising.
According to Burke, Gagarin Way is about "crap terrorists being crap." However, these terrorists are not bumbling amateurs quickly caught by the local police but rather are menacing hard men who work on the assembly line, or oppressed fathers of three who ride the bus daily. Michael Nardone's performance as Eddie, the frighteningly verbose criminal who educated himself with a library card, is sophisticated and nuanced; he balances ten-minute comic treatises on Jean-Paul Sartre and Jean Genet with shocking displays of quiet fury. Billy McElhaney's portrayal of the desperate Gary is heartbreaking, as his careful plan to create a better existence through a single, violent, political act slowly unravels before his eyes. Michael Moreland and Maurice Roëves give equally strong performances as Tom and Frank, the play's political and physical punching bags.
Director John Tiffany deftly ushers this versatile quartet through Burke's barbed Scots-English dialogue and lengthy philosophical musings; what could very easily be a simple courtroom drama or heist-gone-wrong scenario plays out seamlessly as a battle of ideologies in which everyone loses. Even with a gun to his head, Frank condemns Gary and Eddie's bizarre strain of activism, robbing them of any glory or hope of success...