“…Do I look happy?” ventures Nikolay Nikotine, and his sunken features, usually tremulous, are entirely still for a moment, frozen in painful hope and dread. Naturally, the audience responds with utter silence, mainly because this downtrodden man is made up of only a foam head and a shawl, his hands and legs are borrowed from his kindly interpretor – and no, he does not look happy.
In Milena Milanova’s ‘cabaret-style’ adaptation of On The Harmful Effects of Tobacco, the protagonist of Chekhov’s one act monologue is played a by puppet – a particularly relevant incarnation, as this conference on the dangers of smoking soon turns into a harrowing lecture about the pitfalls of marriage to a domineering and merciless woman. Nikotine’s overbearing wife, initially introduced as his ‘companion for life’ (which we soon learn to read as the warden of his life sentence) waits in the wings whilst he seeks temporary solace in cigarettes, play-acting, opera, his pet mouse and often the audience too, begging us to take him away whilst everything about his physicality provides us with the simultaneous knowledge that he will never summon the strength to leave. Throughout the production, which is in turns both a delight and an ordeal, he is assisted by Milanova herself, an endearing and self-conscious hostess who, for the duration of the conference, bears the brunt of this troubled man’s inescapable dilemma.
Unmistakably, Milanova is an accomplished and remarkable puppeteer, especially considering the simplicity of Nikotine’s construction. With one hand put through a loop at the corner of the shawl, and another manipulating his foam head, the range and subtlety of her craft emerges as truly astonishing – Nikotine trembles and twitches when agitated, leaps and soars as he remembers his youthful dreams and in a particularly awe-inspiring scene, the pair dance a duet where the overlap and conjunction of their bodies is played with in such a way that it almost resembles some sort of Surrealist optical illusion. There are instances of enjoyable multi-roleing as Milanova obliges her guest by performing the part of a slobbering cook and even the sadistic wife herself, a discomforting cross between a reptile and a feline, who looms over her miniature husband with bared teeth and clawed hands poised for a vicious attack. Commendably frightening though it is, it also raises some uncomfortable questions. Perhaps it would be interesting to find out Milanova’s own perspective on Chekhov’s ruthless representations of women, as her own impressions are hardly forgiving.
Both charming and technically impressive, it is a shame that Milanova lets herself down by allowing the actual content of the show to ramble rather aimlessly. Nikotine himself is visually entrancing but the novelty does begin to wear off, and I fear that to take away the puppet would leave behind a rather unsatisfying text that has misplaced both the clarity and the poetry of the original Chekhov. With credit to Milanova, there is something ingenious in the very use of the puppet, for the utter isolation of the helpless Nikotine seems even more profound now that he no longer even inhabits a definite physical body. His vulnerability was dutifully conveyed, particularly in powerfully distressing scene where he entertains himself with the tiny puppet of his pet mouse – an ageing man regressed to a lonely child – yet equally communicated was the distinct air of rather tiresome foolishness. Nikotine’s over-played stumbles and silences, which began to grate towards the end, unintentionally helped to prove the unworthiness his wife derides him for, rather than eliciting sympathy. It was apparent that Milanova intended to portray the extent of Nikotine’s loss of self-assurance under his wife’s brutal regime, but after enough over-prolonged hesitancy and amnesiac repetition, the concluding action of the play, as he is folded up and given back to her, was perhaps rather more of a relief than it should have been.
*** – 3/5 stars
Nikotine is playing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival until 27 August. For more information and tickets, see the Edinburgh Fringe website.