Belvoir takes on Erdman’s black comedy, bringing it forward from Stalinist Russia to the here and now
Content warning: this review discusses suicidal ideation.
Sami (Yalin Ozucelik) wants to die.
He has been living in a displaced person’s camp for several years. It’s not one of the bad ones like Nauru or Manus – we’re assured in an early fourth-wall-breaking aside – but it’s still such a long time to live outside of the world. Sami has a string of abandoned dreams and denied visa applications behind him, and he’s thinking of suicide.
His wife Maria (Victoria Haralabidou) and her mother (Paula Arundell) are alarmed and begin the fight to convince Sami he has something to live for. But everyone else in the camp can’t wait for Sami to pull the trigger; his death can turn their personal plights into a public cause célèbre.
The group following Sami gets bigger and their arguments over who will get mentioned in Sami’s suicide note get more heated as they argue their cases to this dead man walking. You’ll be a celebrity, Sami, they promise, if you write about us. If you say you did it to draw attention to girls’ education. Or to protest dodgy foreign aid organisations. Or for art. And then, they have an idea: why don’t they throw him a party right before he dies? After all, this is what Sami wants... right?
Nikolai Erdman’s subversive play The Suicide, which was banned in Stalinist Russia and led to the arrest of Erdman and other creatives, has been adapted and contemporised here by director Eamon Flack and the company of actors. It’s now a madcap dark comedy with a healthy (and subtle) dose of pathos.
The ensemble (which includes Fayssal Bazzi, Nancy Denis, Charlie Garber, Marta Kaczmarek, Mandela Mathia, Arky Michael, Hazem Shammas, and Vaishnavi Suryaprakash) each have plenty of moments to showcase their comic chops, but this leaves the play feeling overstuffed with grandstanding; it’s great that everyone has a ‘bit’ to call their own, but many are superfluous and derail and distract the play from its central momentum. The most successful are running physical gags (a sight gag about broken personal effects has a brilliant payoff) and the more finely-tuned caricatures thrown into the soup, like Garber’s ‘Charlie Gerber’, a South African aid worker who may or may not be corrupt. Ozucelik holds the play together through sheer force of will, unravelling before our eyes. It’s impressive.
But as free-wheeling and modern as this revival is, there are still some elements that feel dated: the women onstage fall into roles that are largely in service to men (often sexually and deliberately grotesque) and there’s a running joke where one woman is consistently talked over – her payoff comes way too late to justify the male-centric behaviour. When you’re ripping a play apart in 2018, why do the women still come second, and why is their sexuality played for punchlines while the men are more nuanced? It’s an unfortunate oversight that plays into tired stereotypes of fetishising and sidelining women.
Onstage scoring by Mahan Ghobadi and Hamed Sadeghi, with percussion and strings, adds not just an essential liveliness and diegetic realism to the play, but also allows for additional flexibility, humour and sight gags. This subtler presence is a much-need wry counterbalance to the play’s broader, more frenzied approach to storytelling.
On a rough-and-tumble set by Dale Ferguson (lit with wit by Verity Hampson), the production has a consistency to its world-building that’s pleasing – everything is a little messy and on-the-fly on the surface, though clearly judiciously planned. This gives the actors plenty of space and support to go big and broad, and gives the cavalcade of jokes a better chance of landing.
Because the sheer ratio of jokes to dialogue is so high, chances are you’ll laugh at something. But there’s an unresolved feeling to this adaptation that may speak to the unresolved nature of the global refugee crisis, but it may also just be that the silly/serious divide here isn’t strongly weighted – we spend so much time in a zany space that when the serious undercurrents of the play hit hard, they feel unearned and out of place.
It’s a strange mix of new and old, funny and tired, thoughtful and merrily thoughtless. At the end of the play, it’s the merrily thoughtless part that lingers, and that feels unsatisfying. There’s a hunger in the play for more intellectual, political payoff, but we never really reach it.