The Dream of a Ridiculous Man – Marylebone Theatre, London

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Writer and Director: Laurence Boswell

Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s short story The Dream of a Ridiculous Man was first published in 1877. Narrated in the first person by a suicidal resident of St Petersburg, his melancholy is interrupted first by an encounter with a young vagrant girl, and then by a dream in which he finds himself transported to a Utopian paradise planet devoid of all the troubles plaguing Earth. As a story of the power of hope to transform one’s viewpoint, it’s a bleaker, very Russian sibling to A Christmas Carol, albeit one that eschews the Dickensian happy ending in favour of something more nuanced.

Writer and director Laurence Boswell updates and tweaks the original for this solo show, with Greg Hicks as the man. St Petersburg is replaced with East London, in an age that’s a little too fluid – talk of refugees in small boats sitting uncomfortably alongside characters who smoke inside a pub.

The structure is the same, though, Hicks taking us around his world, from the characters in that pub to the drug-dealing neighbours so self-destructive that the frequent acts of domestic violence he witnesses are just shrugged off. This nihilist view of the world is, Hicks elucidates clearly, one in which a bullet to the head may indeed seem like a viable option.

The narrative is complemented by a rich array of audio effects, expertly put together by sound designer Gary Sefton (and with musical cues by Harrison White), but which often intrude too much on Hicks’s gift for immersive storytelling. More restraint goes to the lighting design, illuminating the bare stage with projections and backlist shadows onto the otherwise bare black backcloth.

Hicks is at his best when his character is in abject misery, so the lightness of the alien idyll struggles to feel quite as well-formed in comparison. Boswell’s script carries much of Dostoyevsky’s penchant for favouring mood over description, so it is a dreamlike patchwork of mental imagery (compare again with Dickens, who preferred scene setting and dialogue to convey the sense of a character’s inner thoughts, rather than the other way around).

One would perhaps hope for a little more flesh on some of the bones. When the man accidentally reveals to the utopian people the concept of lying and deceit (as if he is the serpent in Eden), one yearns to find out more about the point at which that happens. But as with Dostoyevsky, Boswell is more concerned with the waves of mood and emotion rather than the turning points themselves.

There is also a sense that the allegory we are being told is at once too obvious, yet too opaque. That comes with the sense that listening to someone else retell a dream that they had is never quite as much fun for the listener as for the narrator.

The message of the dream is not lost, though. We can have utopia, or we can live in the world; the latter is the biggest obstacle to the former. But as the man preaches about his dream, there is an awakening sense that striving to undo the damage humanity has done to the planet, and each other, is enough to keep us trying.

Continues until 20 April 2024

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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