Edinburgh Fringe 2011
The Overcoat is a modern reinterpretation of Nikolai Gogol’s famous and influential short story. Adapted by Catherine Grosvenor, Aleksis Meaney directs a cast of six, who play some 40 characters between them. Rather than the buraucracy of the Russian State, our story takes place in the modern banking world.
The play follows through from Harold Macmillan’s “You’ve never had it so good” of 1957 to the present day global economic crisis. For most of the play takes place in a bank where we see the introduction of the electronic typewriter through to the personal computer and the MS Dos of the clever “Billy Gates”. We are also introduced the various management styles of the ever changing bank managers.
The clever but shy and inconspicuous bank clerk Akaky Akakievich, the hero of the piece, hardly utters a word through the first half of the piece, until he is forced to via a new bank manager who puts him in the customer service department. Learning to speak to his fellows is where all the trouble begins. For although he is dishevelled, the object of ridicule by his work colleagues, especially for his threadbare overcoat, he himself seems relatively untroubled and it is those around him who are held prisoners by there desires. Nevertheless, Akaky succumbs to the pressure to conform and he does so by purchasing himself a very stylish overcoat, throwing himself into fateful encounters that he could not have imagined, nor would he have ever wished. Through Akaky’s foray into the world of ‘”persona”, pretence and social climbing we are led ultimately into the present day global economic crisis and our own culpability.
Billy Mack’s rendition of Akaky Akakievich is brilliantly physical and nuanced and all the cast’s six members must be commended for the 40 or so characters that appear in the piece, from manipulating banking guru’s, camp designer clothes sellers, to office floozies, all played with a good degree of comic skill, and indeed there were a great many laughs!
There is an excellent dashing of eighties music in the soundtrack, although sometimes this was just a little too loud to be able to hear some of the cast members who were not so good at voice projection. Scene changes were seamless, very creative and with minimal props.
A very professional, fully worked out show which is good to see at this stage of the festival. If I had one criticism it would be that the seriousness of the material sits slightly uncomfortably with the comic style, the latter being a little too much on the light side. It was Nabokov, after all, who said that The Overcoat was Gogol “Tottering on the brink of his own private abyss.” Well, perhaps today our own collective abyss is a little less deep.