Sheer bedlam

A bawdy 18th-century romp at Shakespeare's Globe.

Is this is the way the world-order ends? It's been strictly boys only at the writing end of the Globe theatre since it re-opened in 1996, seemingly in a continuation of 17th-century policy. It has taken 14 years (or 400, depending on your point of view) to stage the first-ever play written by a woman. Playwright Nell Leyshon makes history this month, but can her play Bedlam make equal claims?

We no longer treat the mad with blood-letting, laxatives and leeches; nor do we cut them and keep them cold, so as to let the heat out of the brain. They are no longer regarded, along with the cock, the bear and the actor, as entertaining spectacle. The historical debate on the treatment of the mad that the play scrutinises (enemas and mustard compresses v understanding and compassion) is long dead, so one may wonder how much Bedlam can touch us now, and how much it is merely a jolly period pastiche.

The play is set in 18th-century London, and there is no doubting its Hogarthian vitality. The stage is peopled with gimcrack whores, filthy-hemmed nymphs, beggars and lunatics; as well as fashionable toffs and doggerel-scribblers. An impressive and energetic acting ensemble leaps smartly into the folk dances and popular songs that lace through the show and shore up the flabby plot like a whalebone corset: their riotous version of smutty drinking song "Seven Drunken Nights" will live long in the memory. As will Ella Smith, who stands out in particular in the role of Phyllis, purveyor of various kinds of sauce.

The anatomy of London underpins the revels, and scenes play out in Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, St Giles or Bedlam itself. We get an almost site-specific feel at the Globe, of course, the waterside ("bordello") theatre open to London skies. At one point, the amorous Bedlam doctor speaks of swimming up the river of the bosomy Phyllis, getting lost in her narrow alleys and so on. But the suggestion that the topography of a whorish gin-seller is analogous to London is then -- and this is rather typical of the play -- made explicit, as though the groundlings weren't quite up to the job of working this out. Similarly, the nice structural ambiguity in "mad doctor" is carefully spelled out for us in the final scenes.

The groundlings themselves are variously spat on, begged from, solicited, and at one point, have slops emptied out on them. All good fun, except that at some point the pageant hoists one too many petticoats and shows its pantomime knickers: a hapless audience member duly suffers mild humiliation onstage, and the London references start to look like the local allusions so beloved of panto. The punters, it seemed, had problems with the tone of the piece: when Stella -- who has been incarcerated in Bedlam for what would, in modern terminology, be called postpartum depression -- is reunited with her infant daughter, it is undoubtedly supposed to be a tender moment, but instead it provoked gales of laughter. One of the unlikely pat pairings at the end, between the mad doctor's wife and his reforming colleague, elicited an "aaaaah!" of the sort normally reserved for small furry animals.

There is just a tracery of Congreve's The Way of the World as these two lovers negotiate a union, and it is clear that Leyshon has a sensitive ear for the language of the time. Perhaps the improbable marriages that round off the play, and the creaking plot machinations that get us to that point seem a little trite and dated for modern sensibilities, but there is genuine poignancy in the descent of the mad doctor to mad patient. "I am unravelling" he moans, as he is stripped, and the troubling suggestion here is that the way we treat people is contingent on their costume.

And there are contemporary parallels to be found in Bedlam. The libidinous gin-addict Dr Carew typifies an 18th-century variety of binge drinker. "I am English", he intones, "and this is what we do". It seems that "Madam Geneva", variously sweetened with fruits and berries, was something like the alcopop of its day. And the South Sea Bubble, which sends poor Tom O'Bedlam off his rocker, doesn't sound a million miles off another, more recent speculative catastrophe.

But the show's real strength lies in its 18th-century cartoon colours and textures. This, then, is the way the world order ends. Not with a bang, perhaps, but with a broad-brush flourish all the same.

"Bedlam" runs at Shakespeare's Globe, London SE1 until 1 October.

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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge