Review – A Cosmonaut’s Last Message to the Woman He Once Loved in the Former Soviet Union *Spoilers!*

First of all: phew! It’s a rather meaty mouthful of a title. I realised I hadn’t reviewed any Science Fiction theatre, seeing as that’s the main focus of my thesis, so I thought what better time than now!?

This is a rather beautiful woven tapestry of a play – proving that a play does not need to contain such a tiny frame of perspective in order to hold attention or to be able to provide adequate information (as the medium as a whole classically has difficulties with this concept as opposed to its cousins film, tv and prose).

David Grieg employs his mastery of using “doubles” – a hearkening to the “dual” identities of Scotland – being one and the other – to great effect in this play (which he is well known for, with such potent examples as Europe and The Architect), proving that rooting a play or idea in cultural identity can be explored anywhere, even to the furthest reaches of space. With seemingly post-modern sensibilities, we’re invited into many sets of characters in different places and relations, but with some characters doubling up (of course, this is common where the cast numbers are significantly large, but it accounts for a hell of a lot – I’ll come to it later). You may think that this is simply like a Baudrillian-esque catacomb where their lives are separated, but there’s a great thread of thought throughout the play. What makes this even more effective is that this thread that connects them all together is actually through disconnect – dissonance.

The theme of miscommunication occurs frequently – Oleg and Casmir, the two cosmonauts, are unable to contact the world below – one missing his daughter, the other missing the woman whom he enjoyed a brief sexual stint with. Even though they cross the path over Europe, they cannot reach them. Like the classic paradigm, we’re caught between the far-reaching expanses of space contrasted with the claustrophobic-like nature of travelling inside such a vessel. In fact, the scenes between the two can be read in a Beckettian Waiting for Godot/Endgame sense where they are at a loss of what to do, ruminating but never going anywhere (well they’re in orbit, but you know what I mean). It really starts from the word go as the play begins with:

Oleg: They’ve forgotten us.

Caismir: What?

Oleg: They’ve forgotten us.

Caismir: I can’t hear you.

Oleg: They have forgotten us.

Caismir: I’ve done it.

Oleg: What? (Greig, p.209)

This sense of claustrophobia is echoed through the other characters – whether they’re imprisoned in their own mind, without the power to articulate their thoughts as well as they’d like. Keith, who doubles as Bernard later in the play, constantly complains to his wife about feeling “like a crated animal” in London, “sweating like a pig”, with a latent desire to get the hell out of there (well, what it seems like, anyway, hence latent – he thinks that his new Cezanne style tie will liven him up, and indeed it might. I like Cezanne). Their interactions are incredibly awkward, and we get to see later on in the play why this might be – I’m sure it’s on the tip of your tongue. His wife’s little speech, as indeed the technical difficulties of the TV set malfunctioning brings us back to the unanswered questions between earth and space. She mentions that she looked at the red sky at night – Shepard’s delight “You do get such beautiful skies in this city” (Greig, p.212), neatly contrasted with Oleg’s rather insensitive referral to the seas and lakes below:

Oleg: Everyday we pass over Baikal and every day she looks up. Every day, Caismir. She calls out to you.

Caismir: Cool water.

Oleg: Think of the water in the lake.

Caismir: Can’t remember.

Oleg: Try.

Caismir: I can’t.

Oleg: Remember cool water.

Caismir: I don’t want to remember cool water, you cunt. I want to swim in it.

Oleg: She’s swimming. In the cool water. No clouds over the lake. Natasja’s swimming. I can see her.

Caismir: I don’t know what she looks like.

Oleg: Dark hair. Her eyes… calling for you.

(Greig, p210)

So we’re experiencing alienation not only from the top-down, but from the bottom up. We’re also about to traverse this wave and go sideways. Natasja, an exotic dancer, is busy with Keith in a London hotel. We are neatly linked into this by the description of the graphic playing cards that Oleg and Caismir “engage” with in order to deal with loneliness in space. Rather poignantly, Caismir has refused to use one of the cards as he models her on his daughter – he no longer remember what she looks like.

Natasja on earth, however, is very much real as during the morning after, she greets London with a renewed vigour (she shouts GOOD AFTERNOON MR LONDON! I found this quite endearing). She expands on how she’d love to go to “where the film people go”, to having children with Keith in a vivacious – puppy dog-like energy mostly associated with women in their early 20s, I guess. I’m 25 and I’m not sure I had that boundless, reckless driving force- well, energy always fluctuates, does it not? Maybe I need to cast off my Blake-esque mind forged manacles, eat sushi at the local haunts and chat up business men. I hear it can be fun (sushi is most delicious). But I digress. She is a very dynamic figure and isn’t afraid to say what’s on her mind – she is fond of saying that she’s “not fucking English with shit”, and maybe that’s what it is with me (I’m half English though, after all.) She tells him to leave his wife, yet he mentions that he would be like a “damp cloth over a flame” and despite “feeling like a caged animal” in hot days, that he must go home. NB: Natasja later refers to the club in which she dances “a tomb”, thus adding to the tripartite image of claustrophobia that Grieg depicts on Earth. She rightly explains that if he chooses to be unhappy, it’s to with him, and gives him the opportunity to articulate his desires for the first time. Keith, now overcome with his newly found love for London, is able to half bake his articulation as he qualifies what is meant to be a highly explosive term: “I think… I’m probably in love with you”. I think that’s the best you’re going to get from him.

This rather enlightening scene brings into effect where all the character doublings come into play, a very strong alienation effect kicking in. We see Keith’s wife, Vivienne, digging her garden when her neighbour Claire arrives and they properly talk for the first time. Claire is played by the same actress as Natasja, which may make you jump for just a second. Rather pityingly, we find that Vivienne is a speech therapist, and medically treats those who have problems communicating – with her biggest patient in our mind being her husband.

“Vivienne: I’m a speech therapist.

Claire: The things you can do.

One can do.

You have to tell me sometime.

Vivienne: It’s not terribly interesting, I’m afraid.

Claire: Oh no, Viv. It is. Everything’s interesting if you’re interested in people…” (Greig, p234)

There is also reminiscent asides on Brian Friel’s Translations as she wishes to teach her children Gaelic as well as learning it herself. She mentions that “it would be a waste if nobody speaks it. A waste of all those place names. A waste of all that poetry.” It is also echoed in the fact that after Keith makes his descent into the waters, presumed dead, he is not only found to be alive later, but also cloned as the character Bernard, who attempts to communicate with the poor Vivienne, but to no avail:

“Vivienne: Hello?

Bernard: I don’t speak English.

Vivienne: I’m sorry?

Bernard: English. English? I don’t speak it.

Vivienne: Oh, I’m terribly sorry, I’m sorry.” (Greig, p283)

It reminds me, in part, of the relationship between Maire and Yolland, with their communication evolving out of gesture and repetition, something which theatre can articulate eloquently. In fact, Bernard and Vivienne’s communication seems stronger than his past life’s, Keith’s, even though they spoke the same language. We also see through the perspective of the Proprietor, a figure who comments on both Natasja and Keith’s lives respectively, who is very defensive over Gaelic:

“Proprietor: It’s my language, you cunt.

You come here we talk it.

Mountains we can share.

Place names we can share.

But leave me my language.” (Greig, p298)

I have loads more to say on this, but I’m planning to use it in a chapter for my PhD so yes, I may cut it here. Suffice it to say, Oleg’s sacrifice, an explosion in the sky to bring all the parties together is magnificent and very touching at the same time (Bernard completes the circle by beaming messages and radio signals up to space). The ultimate way to put a message across. It’s a wonderful play and definitely worth reading/seeing. The doubling can often awaken us to ponder who’s found who – another great facet on this play about miscommunication and identity. Not only are we watching, we’re oddly participating. Greig is an extremely deep and articulate playwright, and this piece is no exception.

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