Writer: Nikolai Erdman
Adaptor: Deborah McAndrew
Director: Conrad Nelson
Reviewer: David Noble
There is something wonderful about seeing a performance that is knowingly verbose, that revels in its use of language and has a real grasp on the construction of dialogue. Enter: The Grand Gesture, Deborah McAndrew’s interpretation of Nikolai Erdman’s 1928 play The Suicide, a play written in Soviet Russia and subsequently banned in Soviet Russia until 1982. Although, a translated, transmuted production of the play, the piece sparkles with truly magnificent dialogue and certainly benefits from McAndrew’s eye for cracking vernacular; it is an achievement that a play now set in a “port in Northwest England” (hint hint) manages to retain such an utterly bleak and typically Russian outlook, and this is a testament to her talent.
The play itself is a critique of all portions of society, from the Marxist thinker to the Catholic Church, and how desperately they seek validation and recognition of their cause through martyrdom of an ordinary man, Simeon Duff. A fairly weighty moral argument, and one that could be leadenly dragged around the stage like the corpse these characters seek to manipulate – but this is countered by tremendous and repeated bathetic moments employed throughout the production, truly The Grand Gesture verges on the completely absurd! And it is equally hilarious: the first frenzied, madcap, bonkers, 15 minutes of the performance was among the finest comedic openings to a production I have been privileged to witness, as our protagonists scrabble around in the dark for lost men, candles and err sausages.
If there is any criticism to be made of The Grand Gesture it would primarily lie with its consistency. The play has an inordinately large cast of ensemble oddballs, and the effect of this myriad of weird and wonderful can be disappointing. There are characters that are excellent, such as Robert Pickavance as the self-propagandist Victor Stark and Simeon’s mother-in-law, played by Angela Bain, but there are inevitably characters that do not shine as bright, and lack the energy and urgency of others. While one can appreciate that this large supporting cast is supposed to reflect society as widely as possible, it was often a case of waiting for the better characters to return to the forefront.
Ultimately, The Grand Gesture has to be considered a great success. The relentless energy, humour and absurdity, fundamentally carved out by an excellent translation and adaptation of Erdman’s original play, are a treat to behold; indeed for any fans of loquacious and deliberately empty rhetoric out there, this is the one for you.