“Wait two hundred years before publication,” Soviet literary authorities told Vassili Grossman in the 1950s. The KGB went a step further and destroyed his manuscripts in 1961, not long before Grossman’s death. It took another 20 years for his epic novel drawing overt parallels between the totalitarianism and anti-Semitism of Stalin and Hitler to be published – in the west. “Now,” says Lev Dodin, director of St Petersburg’s Maly Theatre, “I have realised it must be staged and I can do it.”

The world première of Dodin’s adaptation, three years in the making, took place this week – outside Russia. A packed theatre in a Parisian suburb saw a four-hour, unmistakably Russian mix of intimate personal history set against a panorama spanning the Stalingrad siege, gulags, political power struggles and the challenge to scientific integrity.

Dodin makes this vast subject matter manageable by radically reordering the novel around the Strum family: scientist son Viktor battling Party orthodoxy in Moscow, his mother trapped in a Jewish ghetto (the subject of Frederick Wiseman’s film The Last Letter). Alexei Porai-Koshits’s compelling design links these inner worlds to external storylines radiating out like spider’s-web filaments. A metallic volleyball net slices diagonally across stage, held up by kitchen dressers. Through it we see starkly paralleled scenes from the gulag/concentration camp, ending in marching songs that lead actors under the net and back into narrative sequences downstage. The fluidity, the attention to detail, the intensity and lucidity of many performances are breathtaking.

A fierce critic of modern Russia’s wish to forget, Dodin took his team to rehearse in Auschwitz and put them to work in the archives. Now, unashamed crusader spirit can easily turn didactic or schmaltzy. Dodin’s decision to frame each half of the production with long poignant extracts from the mother’s letter goes for the emotional jugular and brings his taut structure perilously close to tear-jerking. But he rights the balance by boldly retaining dense episodes of scientific reflection, ideological debate, conflict between duty and love – all thought-provoking counterweights to the anguish. The result is beautiful, terrifying, draining – and resoundingly contemporary.

Tel +33 1 41 60 72 72. Russian with surtitles.

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