Dying for It – Nikolai Erdman is remembered through Moira Biffini and New Theatre (Theatre Review)

“You can’t sentence a man to live.”

“Why not?  He deserves it!”

There are times when absurdist satire becomes prolific due to control by an oppressive regime and there are times when the regime is successful in stamping out its influence, a case in point being Nikolai Erdman, an enormous Russian talent built belonging to the Imaginists movement whose existence proved counter-appropriate to Stalin’s policy of Social Realism. The wiki-tale of Erdman is a sad one, having started out in the Silver Age of Russian Poetry, writing alongside other Imaginists like Sergei Yesenin, moving into theatre in the early 1920’s and enjoying so much success as a brilliant playwright that his work inevitably made its way to Stalin’s ears, who overturned Soviet bans on his most brilliant work so that it could be staged, only to secure the plays demise by virtue of the problem that rumour became fact. That play was The Suicide, a farce about Stalin’s Russia.  The Suicide was so subversive that it was not performed until 1990, by which time Erdman was dead;  so he never got to see The Suicide performed.

“You must shoot yourself as a responsible member of society.”

Dying For It - Jeannie Gee. Photograph (c) Bob Seary

In 2007, Moira Buffini takes this brilliant play, ‘freely’ adapts it for the English stage, titles it Dying For It, and six years later Sydney-siders are lucky enough to be able to go and see this English language version of Erdman’s very dangerous play. But if the history of The Suicide is not so terribly funny, Dying For It certainly is. There are delightful moments in arts history when the most innocent giggle can pierce the heart of a dictator.  Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator is one (made before the US entered the war with Germany, and a film Chaplain apologised about later) and Jiří Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains (and several other films of the Czech New Wave – particularly  Miloš Forman’s  Love’s of a Blonde) is another  that spring to mind immediately. Dying For It falls into this category and takes its place comfortably with these very great examples. Like all works of this nature, its superbly written, deceptively simple and very very funny.

“Only the dead may say what the living think.”

“My name will be remembered.  My life will have meant something.”

Dying For It - Jeannie Gee, Alastair Buchanan and Aaron Niland. Photograph (c) Bob Seary

Semyon Semyonovich Podesekalnikov (Johann Walraven) is filled with the sulky petulance that can only come from feeling sorry for oneself. The play opens with him prodding his wife awake in the dark of the night and then forcing an argument  simply because he is heartily sick of himself. He accuses her of making him feel bad about having no work and the fact that they are hungry. How does she do this? By patiently going out to work every day and providing for their family and never complaining to him that he has no work – this he has decided is an act of passive aggression on her part. Determined to prove himself a man, Semyon comes up with a plan to make his mark (becoming a famous Tuba player) and when this falls flat, decides suicide is the only genuine option left.

“You want to enter the lottery for his fate?  Five rubels.”

Dying For It - Joel Spreadborough and Victoria Greiner. Photograph (c) Bob Seary

But this is when the farce really begins. When news of his planned suicide starts to spread, mostly by the terrified shouts of his distressed wife Maria Lukianovna – Jodine Muir, and the cleverly opportunistic best friend Alexander Petrovich Kalabushkin (Joel Spreadborough) a marvellous collection political malcontents come together to try to claim Semyon’s signature at the bottom of their carefully crafted, politically motivated suicide note, promising riches for the widow, fame and a large amount of posthumous glory. Among these are the battling intellectual movement, the battling artistic movement, the battling religious movement the battling  materialistic feminine muse and battling business and capitalist interests.  Each would be willing to die for their own cause, but seeing as Semyon is anyway… well why waste the opportunity? During each characters declarations, admonishing and general bumping into each other, they are spied on from above by an innocent neighbour / postal worker for the state, who makes a habit of staring through keyholes and skulking about “observing from a Marxist point of view” he makes clear. As each try to claim Semyon for their own, the laughs push the narrative through to every absurd and ridiculous length.

“Is there life after death?”

“How about a little life before death?”

Dying For It - Johann Walraven. Photograph (c) Bob Seary

Dying For It, as adapted by Moira Buffini, is currently showing at The New Theatre in Newtown.  The entire play takes place in an elaborate set, constructed to look like the inside of the broken down, dilapidated apartment complex Semyon and Masha live in with her Mother. Director Peter Talmacs makes excellent use of all the doorways, staircases, and windows to allow the funny characters to pop in, pop out and peep through the plot as is races along. Tom Bannerman’s set is one of the most elaborate I’ve seen this year, a sturdy three-tiered affair that never fails to look as though it may collapse from age at any moment. Talmacs moves his cast around Bannerman’s set as if they were busy little ants living their pointless little lives, overwhelmed with the business of themselves, but nothing much to speak of in the long run.  Posited against the marvellous script, the set almost becomes its own character. Dying for It is funny, its constant word play can be complex at times, but Talmacs deals with this through movement. Without the seamless flow of the set the drama of the individual characters could overwhelm the dialogue so that much of it might be lost.

“His obscurity is his perfection.”

“We construct the truth.”

“Your body is made entirely of lies.”

Dying For It - Johann Walraven and Margarita Gershkovich. Photograph (c) Bob Seary

But nothing is lost in New Theatres adaptation of this great and ultimately important farce. Talmacs has gathered a talented, devoted cast, the linchpin of which is the gorgeously silly Semyon. Walraven’s Semyon is never quite able to convince himself of this supposed nobility so that we are presented with a man on deaths door who is so full of cheeky life that we can’t imagine how death could possibly claim him. Jodine Muir is a clever Masha, playing Semyon’s wife in such a way that she never comes across as a victim of her exasperated dealings with her ridiculous husband, but rather a woman living fully in the moment no matter what it brings her. It gives Masha a place all of her own rather than a position as the straight (wo)man to Semyon’s cute charm. Living with the married couple is Masha’s mother, Serafima Ilyinichna wonderfully played by Jeannie Gee who delivers some of the best lines in the play with her eyebrow-arched wit. She is repeatedly taunted as the bane of everyone’s life, when she is really the most mischievous and fun character in the play. Gee makes great use of her wonderful role, underplaying it to perfection so that her wonderful lines sneak up and round out the texture of the overt hilarity of the larger characters. The rest of the large company are all strong, well cast and having so much fun with their over-the-top stereotype mock-ups that it is impossible not to be drawn into the pleasure of the entire expereince.

“There’s your body.  There’s your hollow truth.”

Dying For It - Johann Walraven, Joel Spreadborough and Alan Faulkner. Photograph (c) Bob Seary

Dying For It is not just wonderfully performed, not just filled with a cast and crew who love the play, not just very very funny, it is also an overdue tribute to a wonderful writer whose work we have far too little of.

The beautiful photos used in this post are credited to:  Photograph © Bob Seary

Dying For It is on at the New Theatre in Newtown from the 19th of November through to the 21st of December.  You can grab your tickets here. 

Dying For It - Johann Walraven and musician Wayne Richmond. Photograph (c) Bob Seary