By Luke Balleny
One hour, eighteen minutes is the amount of time that remains unaccounted for between a doctor being called to treat Sergei Magnitsky in a Russian prison and the time Magnitsky, a lawyer, was pronounced dead. It is also the name of a new play by Elena Gremina – a play that portrays accounts, from his supporters and from his own diary entries, of events in the year leading up to his death. The play uses as background official reports that were either public or dug up by supporters.
Sergei Magnitsky, a 37-year old father of two, died just under a year after being held on tax evasion and fraud charges. Former colleagues say the charges were fabricated by police investigators he had accused of stealing $230 million from the Russian state through fraudulent tax refunds.
While Magnitsky's death was officially attributed to an undetected illness, the Kremlin's own human rights council has said he was probably beaten to death.
His story has gained international prominence due to the campaigning efforts of his friends, family and former colleagues.
And U.S. lawmakers, urged on by Magnitsky’s supporters, have drafted legislation named after the lawyer that would impose sanctions on Russian officials involved in human rights violations.
First produced in Russia in 2010, the play arrived in the UK this year in a translated and updated version, with the Sputnik theatre company’s Noah Birksted-Breen as director, translator and co-producer.
For those familiar with the story, the play does not provide much new information. But for the audience, the visual representation of the story brings out an emotional response they may not get as powerfully from reading documents and accounts.
The actors, Alan Francis, Wendy Nottingham, Rebecca Peyton and Danny Scheinmann, each play several characters. This difficult task is rendered smooth by excellent acting, a range of UK accents (but no faux Russian ones) and quick costume changes.
At various times during the play, one of the actors brandishes a video camera which projects live onto a screen above the stage. During these scenes when a character interviews officials implicated in Magnitsky’s death, the interviewer zooms in close on the faces of the accused. At once, the interview becomes an interrogation.
The claustrophobically small stage lends the play an intimacy that enhances its shocking brutality. In one scene a policeman savagely beats another character, a colleague of Magnitsky’s. The smacks of flesh on flesh and the resulting cries made the audience flinch noticeably.
One Hour Eighteen Minutes is showing now at the New Diorama Theatre in London and runs until Dec. 1.