Alexander Pushkin’s cautionary tale of avarice and deceit gets colourful treatment in this enjoyable adaptation by Fusebox Productions. This Queen of Spades dispenses with the spare, subtle style of its source material and reinvents itself as a punchy three-hander that shines best in its moments of wry humour and vaudevillian pantomime.
With the exception of Norma Cohen, who inhabits the role of the crumbling Countess with a canny finesse and cranky relish, both Benjamin Way’s Hermann and Jen Holt’s Liza take a little while to ease into the cadence of the rhyming lines. This is understandable – in such a stripped-down, small theatrical space, it is a real actorly challenge to deliver a natural and immersive performance in contemporary rhyme without slipping into the realm of drama-school recital.
Furthermore, Raymond Blankenhorn’s script, while at times inspired, lyrical and immersive, oftentimes veers into clumsy, cringe-worthy forced rhyming couplets (one particular example that comes to mind is Hermann pairing “vigor” with “rigor”, followed by an unintentionally awkward and unfunny pause- “mortis”- this line could have worked if there was a more knowing deference toward its imposed limitations, rather than simply seeming like a terrible rhyme). All the same, at its best, Blankenhorn’s dialogue is lucid and evocative, its content occasionally let down by stylistic constraints.
Once Way and Holt have settled into their roles, they are terrific – a courtship sequence told mainly through mime and charming ragtime score is nothing short of a delight. Way imbues Hermann with sufficient snivelling unscrupulousness and unctuous charm, commanding the audience with his strong knack for showman-like narrative. He is also an excellent physical actor, dashing about, tumbling over, and shouting out the three-card order in time to crazed, frenetic marching. Holt’s Liza is both believable and sympathetic in carving out an arc from sycophantic infatuation to heartbroken betrayal.
With strong performances and excellent costuming by Valentina Ricci, director Max Hoehn capably and assuredly crafts a trippy, funhouse nightmare replete with humour and attention to detail, such as a clever moment where Hermann and the Countess appear like two images on a playing card. Unsubtle, but fresh and creative, this is a bold little production that puts all its chips on the table. For the most part, it pays off.
The Queen of Spades is playing at the Arcola Theatre until 12th November. For more information and tickets, see the Arcola Theatre website.