Is Suicide really funny? That’s what you ask yourself as you enter the Royal Central School of Speech & Drama’s production of Nikolai Erdman’s play The Suicide. The play was written in the 1930s in the Soviet Union, and was after a closed dress rehearsal banned from being performed. At Central, this backstory is incorporated into the set, as the actors mill around nervously on the stage before some Very Serious looking men enter, representing the censorship board. They lean in, and the play begins.
In darkness, we are introduced to Semyon Semyonovich Podsekalnikov and his wife, arguing about sausages. Semyon is unemployed and the family is being supported by his wife. After a grand plan of learning the tuba fails, Semyon despairs and decides he is going to commit suicide. Unbeknownst to him, his neighbour Alexandr offers his suicide note to the highest bidder, and absurdly he is visited by one after another trying to convince him to support their particular cause in his suicide note, because as he’ll be dead he has nothing to lose. The adventure culminates in act two with a pre-suicide party, where nothing quite goes as planned as Semyon attempts to drink himself to courage, despite not wanting to die. The audience are also party members at this point, as two actors wander around the audience with shots of vodka. It is deeply bizarre to see people root for the death of another, and it’s difficult to sympathise with any of the characters that do.
The Suicide is intense, funny and deeply sad, with great physicality and quite a few broken plates, cups and glasses. The play blurs the line between comedy, tragedy and stark realism. The characters want the same thing – a good life, and for their point of view to be heard. It’s easy to see why the play was banned in an environment where speech could get you killed – Erdman was arrested and sent to Siberia, and the director of the dress rehearsal in 1932, Vsevolod Meyerhold, was arrested, tortured and executed. His attempt to stage the play was used as evidence against him. With that in the back of your mind, there is something quite chilling about the play.
The Suicide is beautifully directed by Ben Naylor and Anna Healy, with a stellar cast of graduating actors that don’t have one weak performer among them. As much as you want to give praise to all the performers, I have to particularly mention Jonathan Tynan-Moss as Semyon, who gives a fantastic portrayal with great comedic timing. There is something a bit David Tennant-esque about him, and there’s no doubt he has a bright future ahead of him.
A wonderful preview of actors that I’m looking forward to see in the West End and beyond.
Review by Tori Jo Lau
Performed by the MA Classical Acting cohort in their final production before graduating on Thursday 30th July, 2015 in the Embassy Theatre of The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama
The Suicide is Nikolai Erdman’s infamous Russian comedy which, although banned by Stalin’s censors and never performed in Soviet Russia, has been hailed as “the greatest play in the Soviet repertory”. Fizzing with fierce and absurdist satirical energy, The Suicide is also a timely and poignant reminder of the continued threat of artistic censorship and of theatre’s crucial capacity to threaten authority through comedy.
Sunday 2nd August 2015