The Overcoat by Nikolai Gogol is getting a revamp at the Clapham Omnibus right now. In George Johnston’s version, Akakiy Akakievitchna is female, and we only have two supporting cast members who make up the Chorus.
And yet, all credit to Johnston, it stays very true to the original story in tone and content. There’s the same uneasy quality, and the same sense of dissatisfaction sewn into the play’s linings.
Marta Vella is Akakiy Akakievitchna and she’s quite something. I’m talking about both the actress and the character when I say that. Akakiy Akakievitchna (sound it out and prepare yourself for the faecal humour) is a clerk of low importance at a mysterious department which, for legal purposes, cannot be named. She revels in her menial daily tasks and creates an implacable routine.
Gradually, due to a combination of co-workers taunts and the biting Russian winter, Akakievitchna becomes aware of the terrible state of disrepair her coat is in. She goes to her tailor, the satan-like drunk Grigorii Petrovich. Petrovich is played creatively by Guy Clark of the chorus duo and he convinces Akakievitchna to start saving for a new coat. And save she does, from Vella we get an incredible sense of what the sacrifices she made for the coat cost her. All her routine and everything that had previously given her comfort is uprooted.
Vella plays an increasingly unhinged Akakievitchna with vigour. Now so obsessed with the coat that when she finally receives it her entire world changes. She goes out late, attends parties and receives praise and acceptance from her peers.
Inevitably, this cannot last.
When the coat is stolen Akakievitchna is at the mercy of an unjust, uncaring, inactive system which treats her in accordance with her low professional status.
By the end, Akakievitchna has her revenge on those who wronged her. But there is still no justice, no one pays for their cruelty, no one cares about where Akakievitchna has ended up. Even the job she was so dedicated to do not notice she has been replaced.
This play is beautiful in a vague and ineffable way, and very elegantly danced though by the Chorus. Their blocking and physical movement is sharp and they move well as a duo, a lightness of foot mirroring their careless attitude to the tragedy of Akakievitchna’s tale.
I was slightly underwhelmed by the comedy. It was so close to hitting the mark, so close to grabbing the audience that it became almost frustrating. The funniest pieces of dialogue were the ones accompanied by some sort of physical engagement, rather than the lines referencing something ‘current’ and thrown at the audience like cue cards.
Marta Vella gives an astonishing performance. She’s repulsive at times, innocent at others. She’s coy and quietly descends into a madness that isn’t immediately obvious, but that sneaks up on the audience. It’s as brilliant as it is uncomfortable to watch.
This play, by its very source, is dissatisfying. The plot is tragic, the protagonist isn’t altogether likeable and there is no reward in the ending for sticking with it. It sounds like a hard play to watch, but it wasn’t. 70 minutes flew by and the audience was engaged and interested the entire time. The Chorus entertain and narrate with verve and vigour, Vella steps up fabulously to an incredibly curious role and the accompanying score matched the tone strikingly.
The Overcoat is playing Clapham Omnibus until Thursday 18th January. For more information and tickets, see omnibus-clapham.org/event/the-overcoat-2/2018-01-17.