When staging a play about the oppressive monotony of daily life it’s important that your production doesn’t become a monotonous experience for your audience. Unfortunately, Eero Suojanen’s version of Nikolai Gogol’s short story, adapted by Howard Colyer, treads this fine dividing line with awkward steps.
Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin (Chris Bearne) is a poor, elderly copyist who lives a bleak existence working in a governmental office alongside senior clerk Vasilokov (Peter Saracen) and two junior clerks, Shmatko (Charlie Kerson) and Patko (Nathan Parkin). To relieve the unrelenting tedium of their days Shmatko and Patko tease Akaky about his name and poke fun at his tattered coat. The atrocious state of Akaky’s coat also bothers his landlady, who insists that patching it up will no longer do; he must buy a new one. Things look up when an unexpectedly large bonus from Vasilokov enables Akaky to do just that.
All of a sudden, Akaky is the toast of the office. His former tormentors start sucking up to him and a party is thrown in his honour – or more specifically, in honour of his new overcoat. It’s not long, though, before disaster strikes. On his way home from the festivities Akaky is approached by two men, one of whom claims that he is wearing his coat. They attack him and steal it. A nearby police constable ignores his cry for help, so, bruised and shivering, he makes his way to work. However, when his colleagues arrive the next morning he receives little sympathy; and when he complains about the constable’s behaviour to the self-important lieutenant general responsible for the department he is severely reprimanded for criticising the police. Hopeless and despairing, Akaky leaves the office, never to return – at least alive.
In its day, The Overcoat was an influential short story. Its focus on the plight of the poor in Russian society was a wake-up call for many writers, leading Dostoevsky famously to observe, “We all came out from Gogol’s Overcoat.” However, almost 200 years later, distanced from its historical importance, the play inevitably has less impact; the story is as threadbare as Akaky’s first coat and its allegorical simplicity feels out of step with the world we live in. This impression is not helped by Colyer’s decision to truncate the plot, which, unfortunately, does the play a disservice.
In the original (be warned, spoilers ahead) the ghost of Akaky haunts the Very Important Person (the lieutenant general) until he gives him his overcoat. A little later there are reports of another spirit, closely resembling one of Akaky’s attackers, stealing coats from passers-by. By choosing to end his version at the point at which Akaky makes his first appearance as a ghost, Colyer excises one of the story’s more complex points – that the theft of the coat is not a one-off act of violence but part of a destructive social cycle which turns victims into victimisers. Instead we are simply left with a morality tale about bad rich people and downtrodden paupers.
This would matter less if the staging and direction were more inspired. The main set is Kafkaesque in design, consisting of filing cabinets set at a slant, uncomfortable-looking desks and chairs, a 1970s typewriter and a perspective-distorting geometric shape on the floor. It’s nicely done but a sinister, Soviet-era aesthetic is hardly rare in productions of works by Russian playwrights; consequently there’s little of visual interest. And the audience’s engagement with the play isn’t helped by some poor pacing: the attack on Akaky occurs with tension- dissipating slowness and, on the night I saw it, the production almost ground to a halt during a couple of the set changes.
This is a shame, because it detracts from some good performances among the cast. Bearne plucks at the heart strings as the bewildered and tongue-tied Akaky who just wants to be left alone to do his job; he also raises a chuckle with his surreptitious catwalk spin while proudly parading his new overcoat. Kerson and Parkin, meanwhile, achieve just the right level of lazy malevolence as the office bullies. Kerson, in particular, stands out for the playful malice with which he repeats Akaky’s name as he humiliates him, toying with him like a cat with a mouse. Elsewhere, Ksenia Zaitseva breaks free of the constraints of a play in which women are either shrewish nags or money-grabbing tarts to invest Alla Ivanonvna, the wife of Akaky’s tailor, with depth and compassion.
It would be easy to see parallels between Akaky’s ill-fated dalliance with a new overcoat and the financial temptations that have resulted in our current economic woes. However, apart from a few superficial similarities, The Overcoat doesn’t have much to say about where we are today. And it isn’t helped by this production, which in spite of obvious effort and care lacks the imagination to turn it into truly compelling theatre.
(At the Brockley Jack Studio, 19-29 January 2011)
Reviewed for musicOMH