Dying For It runs at the New Theatre from 21 November – 21 December 2013. By Moira Buffini, adapted from The Suicide by Nikolai Erdman, directed by Peter Talmacs.
Semoyan Semyonovich Podsekalnikov has nothing to live for. He is broke and unemployed and entirely without a purpose, living with his wife and mother in law in a rundown set of rooms. So Semoyan decides to die. What Semoyan doesn’t realise, however, is just how many people are keenly interested in his death and what that death could mean. The personal becomes the extremely political as Semoyan slowly discovers that while he has nothing to live for, he has a plethora of things he could choose to die for…
Dying For It is a really great piece of writing. Black comedy is extremely difficult, because it treads such a fine line. The greatest comedy often arises from the greatest tragedy, but it’s very easy to tip the balance too far one way or the other. In this adaptation of Nikolai Erdman’s 1928 satire The Suicide, Moira Buffini has created something rather brilliant. It is darkly funny in the best possible way: at moments laugh-out-loud hilarious, but never unconscious of the blackness of its subject matter.
New Theatre’s production of this play is largely a good one. In places, it is over-acted – perhaps director Peter Talmacs should have instructed some of his actors to rein in their performances a little, as several lacked subtlety and felt a bit one-note. But overall, it is deft and clever, not pushing Buffini’s excellent script too far into the realms of the ridiculous or wallowing in the dark political underbelly the show exposes. Farce is incredibly difficult to do well, but this production manages it nicely. I’d especially like to commend Johann Walraven’s performance as Semoyan, which is measured and terribly, horribly funny. Joel Spreadborough as Alexander Petrovich Kalabushkin and Christopher Sellers as Aristarkh Dominikovich Grand-Skubik are also highlights. The scene where Sellers’ character tells Semoyan that he needs to die for the intelligentsia of Russia is probably the best of the play – I nearly cried from laughing. In the second act, Jeannie Gee as Serafima Ilyinichna, Semoyan’s mother-in-law, also shines. Her prosaic concern over the financial benefit that she and her daughter can gain from Semoyan’s death is pitch-perfect.
The play maintains the Soviet setting of Erdman’s original script (which was written in Stalinist Russia and banned before it could be performed). The Communist context is important – for example, one character, Yegor Timofeivich (Peter Adams), is continually boasting about the People’s Award he achieved for diligence and efficiency in his job as a postman – but I don’t think the audience needs a solid grounding in Marxist theory to understand it. Any political regime could be substituted in its place, really, because the point the show makes is that for people who have no purpose and no hope of one, the greater political context is irrelevant. Not every decision is necessarily political. The individual does not have to be a microcosm of the society – something which is in itself deeply subversive. No wonder it was banned!
If this sounds too heavy to be funny for you, bear in mind that there’s also a tuba. And it brings the funny. Trust me.
While some of the performances could have been more nuanced, I really enjoyed Dying For It. It’s a farce with some serious meat behind it. You’ll laugh, you’ll think, and then you’ll laugh some more. And it’s almost worth seeing for the set alone – the work Tom Bannerman has done here is genuinely excellent. Dying For It is a great way for the New Theatre to wrap up their 2013 season, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing what they have to offer in 2014.