Theatre N16’s small space isn’t easy to navigate. Set design options are limited and plays with may locations and scenes should probably avoid this space but Monkhead Theatre have found a simple but effective approach to this-a camera. Cameras in theatre aren’t new, Bat Out of Hell uses it and Measure for Measure at the Young Vic used it and this has a useful purpose for Dead Souls as we see lead characters in the toilets and in the pub downstairs.
It also keeps up the energy in an otherwise stale production. The story of Chichikov (Joshua Jacob) feels very Kafka with a bit of Chekov thrown in as this Civil Servant navigates the land owners of 19th century Russia for their dead serfs. Sadly this isn’t is a necrophile horror but an adaptation of Nikola Gogol’s story of status as Chichikov needs the names to claim his own land.
It is a humorous tale but it does seem to plod on, with scenes involving the public not bold enough to bring anything to the progression of the story, especially as they realise The Bedford isn’t necessarily a nice middle-class pub. I am personally uncomfortable with this sort of thing but when it doesn’t feel necessary it is harder to warm to. It doesn’t help that the characterisation from writer Chloe Myerson seems so basic. The actors play multiple roles with the only distinguishing feature being a different coat. Toby Osmond plays two characters that are pretty much the same and even captions on the makeshift screen don’t clear up what is happening, especially Nico Pimpare’s direction blocks actors in front of the screen. Jules Armana is the stronger of the performers but apart from nice outfits, the characters he plays have no distinguishing features. Put on a accent, wear a wig, move in a way your other characters don’t but instead we get 3 actors giving the same performance for each character meaning that we fail to care about the characters development. It might as well have been one actor reading out the lines on stage.
The issue is that it is a weak story, relying on multimedia and ‘The Machine’ described in very scientific terms in the programme it is basically a cymbal that provides quite loud feedback. It doesn’t seem to serve a real purpose and it limits the actors’ movements on the main stage. The actors also struggle over the words and it just doesn’t seem to know what tone it wants to meet. Is it a comedy, is it a satire about class, is it just a nice homage to classical plays? Fans of Kafka and Russian theatre will love this. Even historians might be fond of it. It felt to me that this was a play for actors, rather than a play for audiences.