According to writers/directors Will Cowell and Jonnie Bayfield, the waiting room for the afterlife looks a lot like a Victorian study, complete with dark wooden bookcases and old-fashioned frilly lampshades. In it, Fyodor Dostoevsky (Bayfield) simply exists. Dressed in a nightgown and sporting a joke shop beard, he remembers his life despondently whilst being ‘interviewed’ for a position in heaven. After a Freudian voiceover introduces the cast and the background musician (Jonathan Hopwood) takes his seat, Dostoevsky parades himself around throwing Monster Munch at the audience and acting as his own crowd-warmer, before launching into the production itself. An interesting decision from the directing duo, but one that is ultimately met with a lukewarm reception.
There is a sense of the contemporary about this production, complete with precisely timed and impeccably executed comedy that sits alongside passages of emotional turbulence and jarring material. The Bureaucrat (Adam Colborne) that interviews Dostoevsky is a stickler for process, outwardly cheerful and yet insistent on following the correct course of action whilst conducting his enquiry. The two characters are juxtaposed in almost every way and the apparent differences make for some powerful final scenes when all the tension comes to a head. Meanwhile, within the main character’s flashbacks there exists an uneasy three-way relationship with Parfyon Rogozhin (Stewart Agnew) and Nastasya Fillipovna (Jessica-Lee Hopkins). At numerous points a centrally-placed sign flashes with a cold white light: “this is not an adaptation”. Sometimes it indicates moments of comedy between the three, but mainly it highlights a much more sinister concept that is being relayed to the audience using more light-hearted, benign movement. In these moments, the act of rape almost becomes amusing; suffocation with a blue plastic bag somehow pedestrian; the threat of murder outlandish and ridiculous. There is clearly conceived direction in all of the alternative devices here, a precise absurdity that pervades the play and elevates it from ridiculous to poignant. The cast as a whole are so very into their characters that even with an unexpected pause to the show (an audience member taken ill) it only takes them a heartbeat to pick up their scene again.
Whilst seemingly outlandish, there is one particularly brilliant monologue, a powerful feminist plea that Fillipovna (Hopkins) delivers. The power in her storytelling conjures up an image rich in Russian cynicism and reality whilst simultaneously standing tall and proud. In fact, the whole script and play is somewhat Russian in its construction. It can be dressed up in contemporary comedy, but ultimately this production has weight, layered characters and a point to make.
Idiots played at the Soho Theatre until 2 April. For more information, see the Soho Theatre website. Photo: Richard Lakos