by Nikolai Erdman / 2015, Embassy Theatre, Central / Adapted by Ben Naylor from a literal translation by Charlotte Pyke / Directed by Ben Naylor with Anna Healey / Set design by James Turner / Costume design by Holly Rose Henshaw / Lighting by Edmund McKay / Music and sound by Thomas Moked Blum
The history of The Suicide is a sad and horrifying one. Written in 1928, it originally received only one performance: a dress rehearsal held late at night in front of the censorship board of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Stalin was supposed to turn up; at the last minute, he didn’t show. The play was banned, never to be performed in Soviet Russia. Playwright Nikolai Erdman was exiled to Siberia; the play’s director, Vsevolod Meyerhold, was accused of treason and executed by firing squad in the purges of the mid-30s; his wife – assistant director Zinaida Raikh – was stabbed to death in their apartment by NKVD agents. The Suicide made some terrible people very, very angry: truth to power.
Our production of Erdman’s extraordinary black philosophical/satirical farce used as a framing device the 1930 dress rehearsal held at Meyerhold’s theatre for the censorship board. The members of the company all researched and played specific characters from the historical record, in a long semi-improvised sequence as the audience entered the theatre. Meyerhold, Raikh, Erdman, other actors and employees of Meyerhold’s company readying the auditorium, bustling about the stage, nervously waiting to give a performance for Stalin. The members of the censorship committee trickle in to a row of chairs facing the stage: each has a specific outlook on their work, and specific relationships with the members of the theatre company. The last entrants are Lazar Kaganovich, Stalin’s henchman, and two senior NKVD officers. Stalin’s chair is left ominously empty, the censors leaned forward in their seats, and the play began. This sequence was never overtly explained; the dialogue the actors improvised was played at normal speaking volume and entirely avoided exposition. You either knew the history of the play or you didn’t; but regardless it created an agonising sense of threat.
Later on, each character from the play-outside-the-play turned up in the play itself, in a role which recalled the traits of their historical ‘character’: Erdman as Semyon, the play’s hapless hero, for instance; the thuggish Kaganovich (the “Butcher of Ukraine”) as Pugachev, the butcher; Meyerhold and Raikh as plot-driving lovers Alexandr and Margarita. This layering of character and physical work gave the acting style both bite and depth.
The production used an aesthetic and performative approach entirely drawn from early Soviet theatre and film. We worked closely and consciously with Meyerhold’s biomechanics as a rehearsal tool (as can perhaps be discerned in several of the images above). This wasn’t, though, a staged piece of theatre history: it was an urgently current piece of work. At the time we were making The Suicide, Russian satirical theatre company Teatr Doc was being hounded by Vladimir Putin’s censors and thugs; and indeed, a programme of intimidation of theatre artists has persisted and worsened under Putin’s continued leadership. So we raised some money for Teatr Doc from our audiences; there are audience benches in their new home we were able to help to buy.
The work produced some virtuosic and hilarious farcical performances from a very talented cohort of actors, as well as exploring in depth the connection between a horrifying historical moment and our own. That’s about as high as my hopes can go in staging a piece of classic theatre.
This production was also my first full adaptation for the stage, working from a brilliant literal translation by Charlotte Pyke.
It’s rare that anyone writes a piece of criticism about a drama school production but pleasingly, LondonTheatre1 did: “The Suicide is intense, funny and deeply sad … The play blurs the line between comedy, tragedy and stark realism … beautifully directed by Ben Naylor and Anna Healey, with a stellar cast of graduating actors that don’t have one weak performer among them.”
Production trailer, made by Peter Wilkinson of Blind Crow Pictures:
Photography by Patrick Baldwin