13 – 18 December, 9.30pm
A man sits in the middle of the stage tapping away at an old typewriter, to the sound of a constant background howl. He is surrounded by sheets of paper, many blank, others of which must be his own rejected attempts at writing something meaningful.
He begins his story having convinced himself that he is his own proper subject, telling us what it is as he goes, but he is gradually joined by others from the audience who criticise, contradict, question and insult him. Sometimes they are characters in the story – a haughty militiaman, his servant – at other moments, they are facets of his own, self-confessedly repellent character.
This is Notes from Underground, adapted from the original (1864) novel by Fyodor Dostoeyevsky by Max Gill, and performed with some gusto and directed with a lot of imagination by Jessica Edwards, who provides important focus and changes of pace, with a minimal set and props.
Given that the original novel is often described as the first existential fiction, any adaptation is going to require some concentration from the audience, and if this production seems episodic and never easy to follow, it is largely because the original flips and turns through so many ideas and subjects that its form is designed to provide flashes of illumination against the darkest of canvases, rather than a continuous line of development.
Peter Clements as the Man (he is never named) has a tough task on hand, since his is not only the central character, but he is a hero such as was hardly ever imagined in the 1860’s. A combination of dark vanity, pathos and pride, to which we might add a streak of impetuous cruelty, Clements manages to portray this morally collapsed disaster of a man with some wit. The Man is underground in many senses, already dead to ideas like faith and optimism, struggling with the idea of himself, lost and cast out in a meaninglessly cruel world of accident and torture.
In the second half of the production, (this version plays to about an hour and twenty minutes) the action revolves around his relationship with the young prostitute Liza (Paloma Oakenfold) who he at first courts, then rapes and then rejects. Movement director Fionn Cox-Davies has provided some physical drama here which freezes moments as though in film. This may not be totally convincing but it is imaginative and powerful at its best, helping to coalesce unpleasant truths.
In the end, the play turns back upon itself. The Man, underground, still vainly strugging to explain to himself the nature of existence, not knowing whether he is in heaven or hell.
This complex drama is not perfect, but it does have something about it which is compelling. At the final curtain, it’s ideas are not easily ignored, which is the trademark of a truly powerful production.
Cast: Peter Clements – the Man; Sam Freeman – Chesnock; Oliver Gatten – Markov; Damien Hasson – Petrushka; Martin McCreadie – Kapusta; Paloma Oakenfold – Liza
Director – Jessica Edwards; Movement – Fionn Cox-Davies; Lighting – Edward Horner; Sound – Jon McLeod; Producer – Bryony Hope; Associate Artist – Joel Phillimore; Marketing – Josh Lowe; Production – FlippingtheBird