Freely adapted by Moira Buffini from Nikolai Erdman’s The Suicide
Directed by: Anna Mackmin
Venue: Almeida Theatre
Date: Saturday 21st April 2007
The subject of this play is suicide, and the original is by a Russian, so naturally I expected a lot of laughs. I wasn’t disappointed.
Semyon Semyonovich Podseklanikov is a young Russian man, living with his wife (Masha) and mother-in-law (Serafima), in an alcove off the stairwell of a crumbling old building in Stalin’s Russia. His wife has a job and keeps them all, his mother-in-law grumbles for Russia when she isn’t telling the most embarrassingly unpleasant jokes, and poor Semyon is in despair at his own uselessness. As a result, he’s unpleasant to everyone, but especially to his wife, who’s the only one putting food on the table.
The play opens in the dark, with Semyon waking his wife up in the middle of the night to ask for some food, in this case, black pudding. He didn’t eat any at dinner because he felt she was only feeding him to make him feel bad about not earning any money (total nut case), so now he’s hungry. She finally gets up to get him the black pudding, and when it arrives, he throws a hissy fit, blowing out the candles. Along comes mother, woken by the din, with one of the best entrance lines I’ve heard in a long time – “Now, you know I don’t like to intrude…” – which tells us all we need to know about her interfering ways.
Semyon disappears under cover of darkness, and his wife panics, thinking he’s going to kill himself. She wakes up a neighbour (Alexander), who’s got a fancy woman with him (Margarita), and asks him to help her get her husband out of the bathroom – they think he’s locked himself in. In fact, it’s another neighbour from upstairs, Yegor, a postman, the complaining sort who’s got a People’s Medal for Speed and Diligence. Eventually, we see Semyon’s hand appear from under the bed to take the black pudding off the plate – so he’s not so daft after all!
A chat between Semyon and Alexander leads Semyon to the ridiculous assertion that if he could only get hold of a tuba, he’d be fine. He’s found a teach-yourself book under the bed, for the tuba, and fantasises that in a few easy steps, he’ll be giving tuba concerts and raking it in. Fortunately, Margarita owns a coffee shop, and is involved with a female jazz band, Party approved, so she can lay her hands on a tuba at short notice. With the mother-in-law promising to come and clean the gents’ toilets at the club, Semyon gets his tuba.
It’s a little harder than he imagined getting a sound out of it. Fortunately, the author of the book, who wastes no opportunity to promote himself, has given a handy tip on how to blow into the mouthpiece, involving taking a piece from yesterday’s newspaper, putting it on your tongue, and spitting it out. Strange as it may seem, this works, and soon the powerful sound of a tuba is wafting up the stairwell, much to the annoyance of Yegor, who seems to be permanently hovering about. Unfortunately, the tuba master hasn’t covered scales so well, and suggests the eager student should buy a piano and practice on that, transferring the scale to the tuba afterwards. At this point, Semyon realises he’s been had, and throws a tantrum.
He decides he’s going to kill himself, and that’s when things start to go crazy. As word of his plan gets out, all sorts of people turn up to persuade him to use his suicide to make a statement, blaming some group or other in his suicide note. First, there’s an intellectual, wanting him to blame the government. Then an aesthetic vamp turns up – sort of New Age flapper – wanting him to kill himself for love of her beauty, a truly noble cause, in her mind anyway. If he could at least have got a night of sex from her beforehand, it might have been worth it, but she’s the unavailable type, all romance and keeping her legs together. Name of Cleopatra, or Kiki.
Then the priest turns up, and tries to dissuade him from killing himself by spelling out all the horrible tortures he will go through in hell, as God “has no forgiveness for those who despair”. As Semyon doesn’t believe in God, however, he’s not concerned; he sees Hell as being better than what he’s currently got! After this failure, the priest gives up, but as he’s waiting for his tea and biscuit (the main reason why he’s there), he suddenly thinks of an idea. Perhaps Semyon could express his Godlessness in his suicide note, and the priest can use it as propaganda to promote church-going.
When all this excitement has died down, and even Margarita can’t persuade him to call it off, she decides the least they can do for him is to throw a party. A sending-off do. Everyone turns up, including the poet who broke Cleopatra’s heart by rejecting her, and who takes down Semyon’s last words. They’re not bad, actually, and then he heads off into the dark night with his gun, while they all wait, in differing moods. There’s a long wait, then, finally, a distant gunshot. It’s over.
The next act shows us a body lying in the bed, completely covered. Masha comes back – she’d left him the afternoon before – thinking he’s just asleep, but when she throws back the blanket, it’s her mother lying there asleep. She tells Masha the bad news – that Semyon has shot himself, and the rest of them are out searching for the body. Masha is distraught. She didn’t think he would do it, and now she’s lost the man who meant everything to her.
The body is brought in and laid on the bed. There’s a nasty wound on his right temple. The mourners turn up – all the people from last night’s party, plus a photographer and his assistant. The last words have been prepared for printing, slightly revised, and a fancy coffin turns up. A collection is made (Serafima’s quick to pocket the money) and even Cleopatra offers to get the wife and mother-in-law new hats so they won’t look too hideous at the funeral. Unfortunately, we’ve found out that Semyon isn’t actually dead. He was so drunk he couldn’t shoot straight, and missed, knocking himself unconscious in the process. He’d been sleeping it off outside, and so his body was pretty cold when they found it. Naturally, they assumed he was dead. Difficulty is, everyone else wants a dead man to show off to the masses, and he’s not only not dead, he’s actually got over the suicide thing and wants to live. Oops!
As the onlookers are coming up the stairs, he ends up hiding by jumping in the coffin, and playing dead. Serafima is only too happy to play along (this is where she grabs the collection money), but Masha is desperately trying to tell everyone that Semyon is still alive, which means everyone thinks she’s crazy, and in denial about her husband’s death. Eventually, Semyon comes back to life, and the situation is resolved by simply closing the coffin up, and claiming they can’t show the face as it was destroyed in the act of suicide. The crowd outside won’t know the difference, and too many people have too much to lose by telling the truth.
As Semyon and his friends are celebrating his new life, Alexander goes up to invite Yegor down to join them in a drink. When he comes back, it’s to tell them that Yegor has hung himself. He’s left a note, simply saying “Semyon is right. Why live?” And that’s the end of the play.
Whew, that’s a lot of action to fit in, and yet this brief description of the plot doesn’t actually tell the whole story, nor does it get across the vast amount of humour and perceptive writing there is in this play. The set was suitably drab. Everything was grey and decaying. A stove on the left had a flue pipe running up then across to a window on the right. The pipe had simply been put through the glass, and wadding put round the gaps in the broken pane to keep out the draughts. The spiral staircase was wide and grand, but had been shored up in several places with metal poles. A curtain was all that separated this alcove from the stair, and for most of the performance it was drawn back, allowing us to see all that went on. Alexander’s room was on the floor above, and the stairway continued on upwards, to Yegor’s apartment, and possibly beyond. Serafima’s room was to the left, while the kitchen was downstairs. People also came and went via the lower window.
The performances were all superb. Tom Brooke played Semyon, and reminded me at times of Robert Englund in Babylon 5. He was scrawny, unkempt, but with the light of passion and despair in his eyes. His initial bitching in the dark with his wife was a great start to the play, and his initial delight at learning to play the tuba set us up beautifully for his anger and despair at discovering it wasn’t so easy after all. This is a man who is easily disappointed with life, but then there doesn’t seem to be much to be happy about either, apart from his wife.
Masha, played by Liz White (from Life On Mars), really wanted to have a husband to be proud of. One minute she’s snapping at him for waking her up and complaining about her earnings, the next she’s sitting, looking adoringly at him as he tries to master the tuba. She was genuinely horrified when she thinks Semyon’s dead, and fiercely protective when Cleopatra’s around. (Semyon passes her off as the cook, just in case Cleo fancies coming across). She even goes for Cleo over the coffin, while Semyon is playing dead – learnt a thing or two from Gene Hunt, obviously.
Serafima is a wonderful mother-in-law type. Wonderfully entertaining, that is. Her attempts to cheer Semyon up include a funny story about how they teased a poor foreigner who had the shakes, particularly with his head. He was starving, and they offered him food, but kept taking it away because his head was shaking like he was saying “no”. How she laughed. He didn’t seem to enjoy it much though, ungrateful sod! Still, she had the savvy to keep the money, and the nice new hat Cleopatra had brought her, so she’s got some sense.
Barnaby Kay played Alexander, and I didn’t recognise him at first behind a big bushy beard. He’s a large character, with a large appetite for life, and he makes good use of the demand for Semyon’s services as a suicide – he takes money for passing on individual requests. Some of the money he passes on to Semyon, after taking a large cut, of course. Margarita was played by Sophie Stanton. She’s not just a wanton woman, she’s got a good business head and a heart of gold, but not a scrap of sentimentality. When the crowd are getting nasty over not having a dead body, she’s the one who persuades them to accept an empty coffin by threatening to dump a nasty bucket of shit over anyone who disagrees. Good negotiating skills. (Actually, the bucket only has water in it, so she’s good at bluffing as well.)
The other supporting roles were beautifully done, and the whole ensemble worked very well together. The final revelation, of Yegor’s suicide, changes the atmosphere completely. It’s a shock, but it doesn’t eradicate the enjoyment of the previous couple of hours; it simply gives us a lot to think about.
© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me