Brighton Fringe 2012
I was shivering. It was a sweltering August night under the low ceiling of the Iambic Arts Theatre but on the stage in front of me a man was being buffeted by snowy gusts, his arms wrapped across his chest to try to keep warm while the wind pulled strips from his tattered overcoat, and it felt – freezing …
It takes a lot of talent to create that level of illusion, and Le Mot Juste Theatre have what it takes. In the space of an hour three actors conjured up nineteenth century St Petersburg, taking us inside various rooms and out on the streets, using just a couple of screens and panels, with everything else done as graphically descriptive physical movements or mime. The company is trained and influenced by the Lecoq school in Paris, and their physical theatre worked brilliantly on the small and rather intimate stage at Iambic Arts.
‘The Overcoat’ is the company’s own adaptation of a short story by Nikolai Gogol. Akaky Akakiyevich is a lowly clerk in some unnamed St. Petersburg ministry, whose work is making copies, by hand, of official correspondence. He’s poorly paid and ridiculed by his colleagues on account of his overcoat, which is worn-out and falling to pieces. Akaky takes the coat to Petrovitch the tailor, but it’s past repair and Akaky must find the funds for a replacement.
After many sacrifices and tribulations he gets sufficient money and the tailor makes him a magnificent new coat, which transforms his whole appearance and gains him the respect of his fellow workers and even of The Director. Almost at once, however, Akaky is mugged in the street and his new overcoat is stolen. He can get no help from the police in recovering the coat, his newfound status evaporates and he becomes an object of ridicule. The trauma of all this, plus the severe cold against which he now has no protection, combine to shatter his health and he dies of a fever.
This sad little tale was staged with just a couple of framework screens, which the actors moved around the stage to create walls or doors. Two smaller folding panels were set up to form the desk at which Akaky knelt to do his copying. Jon Levin as Akaky has a slim figure, with a smooth face and dark short-cut hair, slightly receding. He wore a grey shirt, reinforcing our feeling that his whole life was rather grey. He’s nervous, and rarely talks in complete sentences. His colleague brings him a stack of documents about a foot high (we see the hands, of course, not the letters themselves) and Akaky seems fulfilled. It seems he never makes a copying error. It seems, to a twenty-first century audience, that he’s fairly autistic …
Ben Hadley is the colleague who delivers the documents, and also plays The Director of the department. He’s tall, with crinkly, brilliantined hair and a small goatee beard. He wears a pink striped shirt, and when he’s The Director he smokes a cigar and holds himself proudly so as to appear even taller and more imposing. Ben is one of the two directors of ‘The Overcoat’, and this versatile actor plays Petrovitch the tailor as well. In this role he’s transformed – he stoops slightly, puts his face into a grimace and manages to make his eyes bulge slightly as he peers short-sightedly at a piece of sewing. It’s almost an Alf Garnet caricature look of malevolence – and as a St. Petersburg tailor, Petrovitch might well have been Jewish, so it’s a clever characterisation.
Petrovitch’s wife stoops too. Rachel Lincoln plays her as a slattern, then in the next scene she rises to her normal height (she’s tall) as Akaky’s department colleague and then stretches even taller, striking an aristocratic pose with dark glasses and cigarette-holder as the Tsarina Katerina (whose letters Akaky has been copying). Rachel was all in red – a calf-length red spotted dress and shiny maroon shoes – and her hair was scraped back off her forehead into a bun at the back. Like Ben Hadley, she jumped effortlessly and believably from character to character, becoming at various times the cat whose fur becomes the collar of Akaky’s overcoat (don’t ask …) and his landlady, Irina Ivanovna.
The three moved together on stage in perfect synchronisation, one altering the arrangement of the screens to change the location while the other actors were performing. It was done seamlessly and without distraction. When we were in Akaky’s attic room, one screen was held at an angle to give us the sloping ceiling, or perhaps skylight, and the illusion of the garret was complete. When they became wind or snow attacking Akaky, or dancing in the Department office, the movements of all three performers were balletic and confident, demonstrating their skill and their Lecoq training. Music was provided by a single guitarist just off the stage, Charlie Davies enhancing the scenes with melodies that sounded Russian, though which sometimes could have been snatches of gypsy tunes from Estonia or the Ukraine.
So, a very creditable result as regards performance, but what about interpretation?
When I read the advertising, I was intrigued that this piece is billed as ‘after the short story by Nikolai Gogol’. Reading that it was ‘an adaptation’ made me worry that Le Mot Juste would have changed the story to make it more ‘accessible’ and dumbed it down. Well, they have and they haven’t. Yes, they’ve changed the emphasis quite radically; and no, they haven’t lessened it in any way – in fact it’s become a deeper, richer, more coherent piece.
Gogol’s original story seems to be about status, or materialism, symbolised by the coat, and about how transitory they are. Akaky’s landlady gets barely a mention.
Here, by contrast, Rachel Lincoln’s Irina Ivanovna is a major character. From the moment we meet her, showing Akaky the attic room he will rent from her, there is an unmistakeable sexual tension in the air. Each time she brings his food, or a candle, she exudes a longing for him which we the audience can sense but which Akaky himself misses completely. He misses it because she is ‘just his landlady’, as he is ‘just the copyist with the threadbare coat’ to his colleagues at the Department. After Irina spoils some of his copied documents, so losing him money saved towards the overcoat, she cares so much for him that she even gives herself sexually to The Director so that he will replace the funds. And Akaky misses it all.
This take on ‘The Overcoat’ is all about appearance. We miss out on love, as we miss out on life, if we take things at face value and can’t recognise anything deeper. Akaky is obsessed by appearance – as we saw earlier his document copies are perfect – but all he is able to do is copy, he cannot create. With his splendid overcoat he is considered witty by his colleagues, without it he is an object of derision. Physical theatre is the ideal medium for this adaptation of the story – no stage set is ever conceived and built to satisfy everyone’s taste or expectations, but with mime and minimalism we audience members visualise the sets ourselves, in our imagination, and they of course are … perfect.
‘The Overcoat’ deserves four stars for the production alone – one audience member was so taken that she returned a second time – but it deserves a fifth star for this bold and thoughtful reinterpretation of Nikolai Gogol’s story.