National Theatre gives Nikolai Erdman’s classic Soviet-era satire, The Suicide a modern, urban reboot. It plays the Lyttleton Theatre 13 April – 25 June. Review by Simon Jenner.
There’s more than a good moral case to be made for adapting Nikolai Erdman’s classic 1928 Soviet satire to contemporary Britain, and a curious twist in this adaptation by Suhayla El-Bushra, directed by Nadia Fall who attest to cradle this slightly baggy conception.
The original, a satire rather than comedy, invokes Soviet stereotypes so unerringly it was banned and its author later arrested. It even led partly to the death of theatrical giant Meyerhold. Erdman himself was lucky to survive, and moved to writing screenplays, after his six-year exile, often anonymously.
Invoking the real tragedies of male suicide and black marginalisation, this adaptation mines something back from that bitterness; a deft but nevertheless damning indictment of how we scrap people before they leave primary school, condemning them to suicide, crime, and isolation.
This is the kernel at issue: it could have highlighted a pertinent problem whereby mentally distressed people are commanded to go back to work, and kill themselves when their benefits are stopped.
El-Bushra’s adaptation is certainly funny, aided by Nadia Fall’s pacey direction, with dissolving crowds, embracing the farce in the text. Still, Erdman’s unerring targets when translated here to a version of less menacing British stereotypes, lack the original’s darkness, as well it might.
The ostensible message couldn’t be clearer. This is a farcical tale of a would-be suicide Sam, played by an unflagging if bemused Javone Prince; sometimes more haplessly cuddly than angst-ridden, one feels.
Having lost everything, including his benefits, Sam’s suicide attempt attracts attention from initially well-meaning then increasingly selfish neighbours, who encourage him to go through with it. This version tries to force the power of language against the farce of events. It doesn’t always succeed. The situations are too crazy; the intricate invectives get lost under others.
But the invention is unflinching, funny and devastatingly adroit. Sam’s highly sexual mother-in-law Sarah doesn’t register his apparent death because her mobile phone has died as ‘the tinder got overheated’. She then starts having sex with the most assiduous of Sam’s acolytes who stands to win a BAFTA on making a film of Sam’s death.
Sam’s wife Maya walks in on the act and Sarah quips ‘grief does that’. Ashley McGuire riffs off middle-class disdain of chavs by feeding off her audience and steals the show.
Sam’s suicide – far from being a private grief − is for the common good, he’s told repeatedly. Anarchist revolutionaries like Paul Kaye’s Patrick (a smarmy comic turn) want to spark revolution by Sam’s martyrdom; film-makers and rappers stand to gain by staging his suicide.
It benefits even local corrupt politician Brian (oleaginous Pal Aron) who assures Sam his loved ones will be re-housed. In fact, he’s going to ‘upgrade’ the area into ‘affordable’ housing. Organic-scoffing types such as Erica (Lisa Jackson), a veggie café owner privileged to insensibility, sashay their way into Sam’s confidence, ensuring he doesn’t falter. Brian’s opponent, harassed social worker Min (Pooky Quesnel), for instance prompts Sam to blame the cuts in mental health and social provision on his suicide note. And she’s one of the sincerer characters.
This is where satire could have counterpointed comedy. Only Maya (Rebecca Scroggs) and Hajji (Sule Remi) have any interest in Sam’s survival, for the most human reasons of love and affection.
Incidental moments are often the best, as when Margaret Thatcher/God appears (Ashley McGuire again) when Sam thinks he’s in Hell. Since arriving, Thatcher has turned the slacking afterlife round into demons of industry productivity and profit. Everyone’s slaving.
This twenty-strong ensemble is consistently energetic. The set design is inventive with wild graphics, a whiff of homage to the 1920s as well as contemporary hoarding. Ben Stones has literally had his work cut out, and its movement is one miracle in a play that almost convinces that it could be a miracle of transposition too.