On 26th April 1986 the world’s worst nuclear accident occurred when a reactor exploded at the Chernobyl power station. Sarcophagus is set in an isolation ward for terminal radiation victims in the immediate aftermath of this historic event as medical staff, victims, scientists, power station management and investigators try to make sense of the unthinkable. Its author, Vladimir Gubaryev, had been an engineer and science editor of Pravda, so it is crammed with technical detail as well as human tragedy.
Damien O'Keeffe, Curriculum Team Leader for Media, Music and Performing Arts, who directed the play, explained why this difficult piece had been chosen. “After a range of devised work, the students who had chosen acting as a specialism wanted a challenge. I had known the play for a little while and thought it would stretch them in a number of ways. They had to master the technical and medical language and the manner of Russian speech. Also this happened to real people, so there was lots of opportunity to research and come to an understanding of how close we came to the brink. They did themselves proud.”
It was certainly a learning experience for the actors.
Ashley Gobbi, initially struggled with the part of physician and research scientist, Dr Anna Petrovna. “We read through and were cast only days before the anniversary and all did extensive research but I still felt detached. Although the names were changed, I found out about my character’s job role and training. I understand she thought it was better not to get attached to patients when she knew the outcome, as she had been there since the institute opened and the only person to survive was Bessmertny. But I still found it really hard to connect with the character and her cold efficiency as I am a very emotional person. So Damien showed me a video of Chernobyl, the reactor and the people working there now. I felt sick that people had to take these risks and determined to do my best performance as a tribute to the people who died and suffered the effects.”
Robin Bowmer who played Lev Ivanovich Sergeyev, the Medical Director of the Scientific Research Institute, said “I knew about the nuclear accident but I know a lot more now. The character work was hard but because the play depicts actual people and events it was quite emotional. Sergeyev is involved in a balancing act between coping with the situation and feeling despair and futility at treating patients that are all going to die.”
Ben Oakes, who played Bessmertny, said “I think his is the most complicated character in the play. He was funny at certain times but he is not a figure of fun. He was poisoned by radiation but he had lived through so many operations that he was confident in his own survival. He had see nothing outside that laboratory for two years and was unaffected by the reactor explosion until the other characters were brought in suffering. This is the most difficult but rewarding part I have ever played.”