During the second world war the Germans captured seven Soviet officers, stripped them naked and entombed them in the cellar of the monastery of St Peter Rabinovich. Then they left them. Sixty days later, the Red Army retook the monastery. Two were rescued, insane. They had survived by killing and eating their companions. They were given a meal and then shot.
But suppose, as Barry Collins’s outstanding play speculates, one of them, Andrei Vukhov, had been able to describe and defend his actions.
From the opening line – “Comrades, I can see I disgust you” – the audience is embraced by this man’s tragedy. For just over two hours, in this severely cut version, we listen as Vukhov fights through his pain to lay before us his story of murder, sacrifice , suicide, and to demand, insistently, our judgement of him. It is one of the most disturbing and gripping experiences that the theatre has to offer.
George Dillon plays Vukhov. He stands before us in hospital shirt, gripping his “silent witness“, a sharpened thigh bone, instrument of murder and butchery, and leads us into the nightmare.
He looks extraordinary, with cropped hair and sunken eyes, and at moments of passion the veins in his temple stand out as if threatening to burst with the urgency of his need to explain. His voice has a gravelly resonance that ensures the intensity of the writing is well served.
He parades a defiant irony, a pride in his will to survive, a bitter sarcasm as we, his judges, shrink away from the tale he has to tell.
He catches himself in despair and forces his way through it. He recalls the love and solidarity of the condemned, and their agony. He even risks a bleak humour. It is a tour de force.Les Smith, THE GUARDIAN, 3 August 1990
There are some plays that demand almost as much of the audience as of their actors. Judgement is one of these. The sheer intensity of Barry Collins’s monologue about cannibalism and the human spirit tears and drains. In language as raw as his subject matter, Collins invites us to judge the actions of Vukhov, the sole survivor of a group of seven Soviet officers locked in a cellar for 60 days without food or water. They are reduced to bare, forked animals who consent to their own death, dismemberment and devouring without, somehow, losing their dignity.
In a performance of rare concentration George Dillon shows us how savagery and tenderness can exist simultaneously, and invites us to join the intimacy of his fleshy feast as though we are guests at a gourmet dinner. He is, he insists, a sane cannibal. Gradually, he turns the tables so that the audience, his accusers, become the accused and leave the theatre burdened with guilt. Not for the squeamish then – this is theatre red in tooth and claw, but an unforgettable play presented by a player approaching the peak of his power.Nigel Jones, THE INDEPENDENT, 31 January 1991
The most impressively impromptu appearance on the Fringe this year is that dazzlingly physical actor George Dillon with his marathon two-and-a-half hour one-man play – Barry Collins’s savage Judgement. He decided to bring it to Edinburgh only ten days ago.
A powerful confession from one of the real-life survivors of a group of Russian officers incarcerated in a Polish prison during the last war and forced to exist through cannibalism, it makes Silence of the Lambs seem like corn-fed chicken food.Jack Tinker, THE DAILY MAIL, 15 August 1991
If you want to enjoy some unforgettable and brilliant acting, go and see Judgement. However, if you want to enjoy a plate of food again don’t bother. The play is about seven Soviet officers who were in prison in a monastery cellar in Poland during the second world war for 60 days with no food or water. They survived by killing and eating each other one by one.
This play focuses on actor George Dillon as the sole survivor, Vukhov, defending his actions. He keeps asking you to listen but you can’t help shrinking away from what he’s saying. Dillon is undoubtedly one of the best actors I’ve ever seen perform on the Fringe.Nicola Barry, EDINBURGH EVENING NEWS, 15 August 1991
Finally, George Dillon’s three-hour monologue without interval, Judgement. This tells the true story of seven Russian officers imprisoned during the Second World War without food or water. Sixty days later, two of them emerge alive: how did they survive? This one is hard to stomach, but Dillon’s mesmerising performance as one of the cannibalistic officers should sweep the proliferating Fringe awardsJackie McGlone, THE OBSERVER, 18 August 1991
What is to be done with Captain Vukhov? He is a rational cannibal compelled to justify his savagery. He feels no guilt, self-pity or remorse. Explanation is his only defence.
In Barry Collins’ monologue of Vukhov’s story it is the audience who sit in judgement. During the Second World War seven Soviet army officers are incarcerated in a cellar beneath a monastery in Poland and left without food or water for 60 days. When the cellar door is opened, only two are still alive and only Vukhov is sane.
George Dillon, as Vukhov, gives a virtuoso performance of awesome intensity. Vukhov’s plea that we should listen with our “stomachs, teeth, noses and hearts” is turned into a command by Dillon. His portrayal of the terror, irony, tenderness, and even humour, of Vukhov’s awful history transfixes the audience for nearly three hours. It is a red-raw theatrical experience of rare depth and power.Toby Harnden, THE SCOTSMAN, 26 August 1991
George Dillon takes us into one of the great fears of humanity, on the nightmarish journey of seven Soviet soldiers locked naked in a cellar. On a bare stage wearing only a shorn hospital gown he takes his audience into that cellar where he survived for sixty days.
He demands that we see him as sane – as we would see ourselves – after he was forced to eat human flesh. Clutching the thigh bone of his childhood friend, a bone which he had sharpened for killing and butchery, he challenges our prejudices and sentiments.
The first slaughter is decided on by the commanding officer and carried out by lot, a calm, necessary ritual. Here is a man who has not been a vicious killer, who cradled the head of the other survivor, who pities the soldier who found them.
We are drawn into the terror early, at the first killing, when each man drew a hair from the Colonel’s hand. We too are forced into this action. We must, therefore, comply with his appeal to judge rationally. Yet if we are in any way fit to be his judges we must leave our horror and disgust behind. Barry Collins is as fierce and direct as his actor. The question he puts to us, is Vukhov more guilty because he has not gone mad like the only other survivor, opens up inconsistencies we would rather not face. In making us Vukhov’s judges Collins also judges us.
For Vukhov’s dignity, his description of the first victim literally laying down his life and the unimpaired reasoning of his case as he presents it, all build up into a sardonic demand for justice, a justice that our emotions and taboos deny. George Dillon faces us, wearied yet resilient, a pitiful creature more sinned against than sinning, winning us over to his cause through a performance of astounding power.Tinch Minter, THE STAGE, 12 September 1991
In Bradford’s Theatre in the Mill there was no compromise. George Dillon’s solo performance would, we were told, also three hours without an interval. There was no set, only black curtains around the playing area; only one costume, a stark white hospital shirt that came to Dillon’s knees; and only one prop, which Dillon told us was the thigh bone of a fellow officer he had eaten. And the house lights were left on. We were supposed to be the judges but Dillon was also judging us. Were we paying attention? I was, George, I swear.
Barry Collins’s script is totally compelling. Seven Soviet officers have been captured by the Germans in 1944 and locked, naked and without food or drink, in the cellar of a monastery in Poland. When they are liberated, 60 days later, two have survived by eating the other five. One of the survivors is crazy, but the other is sane enough to tell his story and to be put on trial. “I am being tried for my rationality,” he says, adding: “Am I not a normal cannibal?” George Dillon, who has directed himself, alternates as the sane survivor between cold reason and frustrated rage. With his teeth and his long clawing fingers, he shows us how to eat raw human flesh. Later he shows us how he cradled the only other survivor in his arms, while sharpening the thigh bone in case he had to butcher him.
Barry Collins says he set out to write a modern tragedy. But the strength of the play – and the playing – lie in its ruthless refusal to allow us the luxury of pity. We are asked to listen with our stomachs and our noses. The last words in the play are: “Comrades, I await your judgement.” The only possible judgement is that this is an enthralling piece of theatre, not to be missed.Albert Hunt, THE GUARDIAN, 3 March 1992