Conviction, Above the Arts, London ★★★½

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

Communist Czechoslovakia in 1950 is the setting for Rebecca Morgan’s one-act play about two women on either side of the political divide, and how conviction in one’s own beliefs can lead to drastically different conclusions.

Gabriella Gadsby’s Ludmila starts out as an innocent student with a taste for theatre, whose performance in a naïve play extolling the virtues of Communism and the dangers of resistance attracts the attentions of the party’s inner circle. Gadsby’s innocence and unwillingness to rock the boat contrast nicely with the scepticism of her childhood friend Petr, whose displeasure with the Soviet takeover of his country is something that Ludmila begs him to hide.

On the opposite side, Polly Attala’s Milada is a former politician from the pre-Soviet era who continues to talk openly about her concerns for her homeland, attracting those like Petr to a mutual cause even as the watching eyes of the party seek her out. With her owlish glasses, prim dress sense and calm stature, Attala is a calm, dignified presence throughout, writing at a corner desk even as other scenes play out behind her, a persistent thread of resistance even as the Communists orate and manipulate with ever greater strength.

As the play progresses Jason Denyer’s party official Josef becomes more and more powerful, leading to a rousing speech which comes to demonstrate the seductive role that oration played in recruiting people to Communism. And while his monologue is effectively accompanied by a solo violin by Holly Donovan (who also plays Milada’s daughter Jana), Gadsby also performs an interpretative dance piece. It’s technically adept – and clearly a part of her professional CV which is as strong as her acting – but fits poorly with the rest of the play, running close to reducing the power of Denyer’s speech. Elsewhere, though, Gadsby’s transition from ingenue to party apparatchik is a delicately played transformation.

What is most impressive is a scene portraying Milada’s interrogation by Josef. Denyer and Attala circle each other, each steadfast in their beliefs and resolutely determined to hold on to them. As might be expected, the questioning quickly turns to physical torture: but rather than try and fake the violence, Morgan has Milada recite a description of the atrocities. Attala’s quiet, calm delivery propels the torture into something much more brutal than any physical reconstruction could ever manage.

Unfortunately, the power of that glorious central confrontation is let down by an overlong conclusion, as Ludmila prepares to act as the inquisitor in Milada’s show trial in which the verdict is as inevitable as it is depressing. Here, Morgan juxtaposes Ludmila’s rehearsal of her lines – the party member once again acting in a Communist play as she did in the opening scenes – with Milada’s reading of the letter she will leave her young daughter.

While both these pieces of material may well be based upon real texts (Ludmila Brožová-Polednová playing the key role in the 1950 show trial of opposition politician Milada Horáková), the drawing out of what should be a thrilling, dreadful conclusion turns it into an exhausting anticlimax. And that is a shame, for it risks us leaving Morgan’s play with less of a sense of the piece’s power than it really deserves.