Acclaimed Bristol collective Raucous, who gave us the extraordinary promenade performance The Stick House in 2015, return this autumn with their new show. And this time, Raucous will be transforming the disused Edwardian Jacob’s Wells Baths into the snow-covered streets of Leningrad.
Set in 1942, during the Siege of Leningrad and the coldest winter in living memory, Ice Road harnesses Russian folktale and survivor accounts to tell a story of the children that war leaves behind.
In the wreckage of an old apartment block, four orphans are compelled to join forces to survive the murderous Leningrad blockade. Through a cruel winter, enemy shelling and gnawing hunger, Leah, Zoya, Tati and Kub fantasise of escape on the only road out of the city – the Ice Road.
Writer Sharon Clark (The Stick House) explains the show’s genesis – and Leningrad’s story of artistic expression through adversity. “In 1991 I travelled across Russia and China and realised how little I knew about the history of those countries. I started to read about the Stalin/Mao years and it was during this that I came across the Siege of Leningrad, which I had heard of but knew very little about.
“After so much loss of life before and after World War II, the siege just seemed to be another bloody milestone of lives tragically and unnecessarily lost due to the inefficiency and vanity of leaders. However, I read about the role the arts had played during the siege – how, for a long time, the concert halls and theatres remained open even though people were starving to death.
“There have been some great novels written about the Siege – by Helen Dunmore, Gillian Slovo – but I decided instead to delve into the history books and eye-witness accounts. I watched and read anything factual that I could get my hands on.”
Sharon and director/ sound designer Tanuja Amarasuriya also travelled to St Petersburg to collect first-person narratives by survivors and speak to historians, theatre directors and museum curators. “I became obsessive about this time. There are so many stories of this event that never registered with us in western Europe.
“The music of Shostakovich, for example, who composed his Symphony number 7 for the Siege, became integral to what we wanted to explore. At a time when we are having some bleak discussions about the future of arts funding, learning about the huge impact that theatre and music had on a city on its knees became totally moving and powerful. Music and theatre gave Leningraders hope and defiance – and reminded them of their humanity.”
The show is being staged in the vast, historic Jacob’s Wells Baths. “We had worked with the brilliant Artspace Lifespace during The Stick House – it was they, along with the Invisible Circus, who let us use the tunnels. We were casting our eye around for a different kind of space to use for Ice Road and they showed us round the baths – a striking, towering space, a bit knocked about but all the more stunning for it.
“Its height was a big draw: this sense of scale felt right for a story about a city that has been bombed into oblivion. The streets, the towering buildings as they lean together, all life sucked out of them by constant air-raids and being stripped for anything flammable so that people could keep warm in the horrific cold. It is an epic time that demands an epic space.”
Aside from being a typically immersive Raucous spectacle, will the show provoke thoughts in its audiences? “The Siege offers myriad issues and themes that rear their head again today,” Sharon reflects. “The ideas of siege are being revisited in places like Aleppo. How children orphaned by war endure has been the subject of much photo-journalism in the last four decades.
“Then there is the fact that culture was crucial to those in the Siege. Culture wasn’t just seen as an elitist pastime: it was vital to survival, to a sense of community, to the thing that makes us and keeps us human. At a time when the arts in this country often seem reviled as the playground of the entitled, it’s humbling to see that in Leningrad the people saw their culture as an act of defiance.
“That actors and musicians climbed up on to the stage every night, some dying from starvation whilst performing, was like shaking a fist on behalf of a whole city. And it was this amazing sense of a city knowing itself so well that it could never be defeated that proved a catalyst for the play: that, against overwhelming odds, Leningraders refused to lay down in the snow.”
Ice Road will be performed at the Jacob’s Wells Baths from Oct 2-Nov 19. For more info, visit www.raucous.org.uk/ice-road
Read more: Review: The Stick House, The Loco Klub