Review: Dead Souls
Image: Theatre N16
“How much do you want for them?”
“I really don't know ... I have never yet traded in dead folk.”
A stranger arrives in a small town.
He is a businessman.
He makes enquiries.
He charms the local officials.
He visits the local landowners.
But there's something off about him ...
Loosely set in 19th century Russia, Dead Souls is a story of greed and transgression that feels worryingly modern.
A dark comedy adapted from Nikolai Gogol's infamously unfinished novel, it is epic, hilarious, tragic and bizarre.
Monkhead Theatre have already taken a couple of opportunities to try-out this new work and now they're giving it a more formal, but rather short run at Theatre N16.
That doesn't give you much time to see it, but it is worth tweaking your schedule to catch a production which is fun and imaginative, with a strong message about capitalism and society that has a surprisingly modern ring to it.
The play is Chloë Myerson's adaptation of Nikolai Gogol's novel of the same name which was first published in 1842, described by the author as an 'epic poem in prose'.
The plot follows the dubious activities of a man called Chichikov.
His big idea is to buy-up dead 'souls' from landowners.
Now before you leap to the (maybe reasonable) conclusion that this man is some kind of religious fanatic, you need to know that, in the Russia of the early nineteenth century when this play is set, serfs were owned by landowners and were called 'souls'.
And there's one more bit of essential background - landowners were taxed on the number of souls they possessed as recorded in the most recent census.
Since serfs often died between one census and another, it meant landowners might be paying taxes on some dead serfs.
So, Chichikov's plan is not to buy spirits, but simply buy the rights to the dead serfs.
His larger purpose is to collect as many 'souls' as he can and then mortgage them for a massive sum (perfectly legal at the time, it seems) and buy an estate of his own and become rich.
His sales patter to landlords is that they will benefit from his purchase of dead serfs because they will no longer pay the taxes on the non-existent people.
A win-win situation you might think, but not all the landlords Chichikov visits see things his way and, what's more, a prosecutor starts sniffing around suspecting Chichikov's activities for what they really are - a highly profitable scam.
Video is a significant feature of this up-dated version of Gogol's remarkable work, but to give details about just how the visual medium is used would reveal a neat surprise.
Suffice to say that it exploits the structure of the large pub building where Theatre N16 resides and its immediate environs.
It is a brave, inventive and humorous way to use the medium, and though I'm not entirely sure video hasn't been used this way before, it certainly fits the nature of the piece and, in particular, the conversations we need to hear.
Less satisfactory is the use of 'The Machine', a special microphone which the characters speak into and which causes an attached cymbal to reverberate.
Though it lends something of a sense of eeriness to aspects of the dialogue and action, it also proves slightly irritating without adding significantly to the overall atmosphere - the well-selected music does a better job in this regard.
Also, we didn't need the final clarification linking the story with the nature of money - it would have been better to leave the audience to decide what the play is about and how it relates to past and present-day ethics and economics.
However, the hallmark of Nico Pimparé's highly considered and spirited production lies in the laudable willingness to experiment and take risks, and the bulk of what is on offer here works persuasively including commendably interesting, contrasting and often humorous work from the cast.
Though this adaptation of Gogol's masterpiece can't encompass all of the original author's intentions, it does highlight some of the corruption and flaws in the socio-political landscape which Gogol had in mind, and these prove resilient to the passage of time, and still significantly relevant to our modern predicament.
Find out more about Monkhead Theatre here.
Links and related content
ActDrop listing for Theatre N16
Our show listing for Dead Souls
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