Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya was murdered—shot four times in the elevator of her own Moscow apartment building—in 2006. Italian playwright Stefano Massini wrote Intractable Woman in 2007, to pay tribute to her and keep her memory alive. I wish I could say that the play, about the necessity, the impossibility, and the complexity of ethical, unbiased journalism, and the terrible brutality of Russian (and by extension world) politics, felt dated eleven years later, but it’s depressingly relevant. (Massini, also the author of The Lehman Trilogy, which sold out a run at London’s National Theatre and is coming to the Park Avenue Armory in the spring, is having quite a year of political theater.)
Three women (Nadine Malouf, Nicole Shalhoub, and Stacey Yen) both narrate and play Anna, as well as playing the roles of Politkovskaya’s various interviewees—mostly Chechen and Russian men, soldiers or politicians—and occasionally members of her family. The overall mood of the piece, in both Paula Wing’s excellent translation—which uses patterns of repetition almost as the structural architecture of scenes—and Lee Sunday Evans’s stripped-down direction, is a clear-eyed insistence on recognizing and recording for posterity everything that passes. It’s about witnessing, not experiencing action—even some of the more terrible things that happen to Anna herself are described more than felt, with a Brechtian-style alienation effect that feels well suited to the play’s tone. Still, each actor seems to be shaded with a slightly different emotional register (Yen fighting always not to be haunted by what she’s seen; Malouf with steely determination to keep moving forward; Shalhoub with an air of banked rage).
The quietness and restraint of both writing and performances only underscore the horror and the urgency of the subject matter. The production elements, too, almost vibrate with the tension between their mundane simplicity and the extravagant awfulness of the events and settings that are described, but never depicted with anything more than faint sound effects. Marsha Ginsberg’s set is the blandest of official press rooms: pale blue walls, flags at the main entrance, an array of red chairs, and a table with two microphones at the front. Slight movements of chairs or shifts in Masha Tsimring’s lighting give gentle suggestions of place: chairs set side by side for Anna’s couch or arranged into rows for a makeshift memorial at the school in Beslan; lights clicking into blaring fluorescence for a hospital.
Most of Politkovskaya’s best-known reporting comes from Chechnya, which is therefore where most of the play takes place; she’d spend months there at a time, living in incredibly dangerous conditions and interviewing extremely dangerous people—like the nineteen-year-old Russian soldier who tosses off references to “quotas” of three to four Chechen kills per day as if he’s describing his dinner rations; like the higher-ranked officer who thinks of Chechen citizens as worthless trash and is concerned only about his salary—and reporting back to a Russian population largely unconcerned about or even actively hostile to the fate of Chechens. (Anna, back in Moscow, watches an entire TV series called The Just War, a propaganda epic full of heroic, handsome Russian soldiers and brutal, nameless, ugly Chechen rebels, mesmerized by its ridiculousness and its lack of resemblance to anything she’s seen. At the end, a legend rolls across the screen: “This is a true story.”)
And yet she is able to maintain compassion for her interviewees—at least enough compassion to imagine the journeys of their lives that led to this point, and to keep talking to them as if questions like “What do you want to do with the rest of your life?” are completely normal to ask a man who’s just admitted to “bundling” Chechens, or tying them together in groups of ten and then throwing a grenade into the middle.
Before her murder, Anna had been abducted, attacked, poisoned (while on a plane traveling to mediate the siege in Beslan), as well as helping to negotiate the release of 800 hostages in a Moscow theatre in 2002. And while the play absolutely pays tribute to her bravery and her uncompromising journalistic integrity, it also shows her grappling with the consequences of her actions: people killed after speaking to her; her family’s terror (we don’t even realize till late in the play that she has a husband and children); and, most heartbreakingly, her own ineffectiveness. She reaches a point of utter fatigue, of questioning whether all her work did any good at all: “I’ve denounced, I’ve reported, I’ve questioned, I’ve demanded. But in the end, what good did it do?”
At this point, the audience has witnessed her devotion to dispassionate recounting of facts; her refusal to “take a position” even when backed into a corner. Still, by the end of the play, Anna finds herself dragged into court almost every time an article is published, hauled before a judge and asked two questions: “Why have you written things that are not true? And who gave you this information?”
In the current American scene, these kinds of questions are still for the most part coming from the president’s Twitter feed and not the legal authorities—but they still feel frighteningly, presciently close to home. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Russia’s brief flare of democracy quickly reverted to autocracy and oligarchy. May Massini’s evocation of the memory of Anna Politkovskaya help to remind us all of the vital importance of a free, functioning press to our democracy.