Red Phoenix Theatre. The Studio - Holden Street Theatres. 26 May 2023
Never let it be said that Red Phoenix is not brave.
In its way, it is just as brave as Russian playwright Nikolai Erdman whose farce, The Suicide, it has chosen to produce in its tradition of presenting Adelaide premieres. This play was to cause Erdman to be exiled to Siberia by a very unamused Stalin.
Fortunately, its Adelaide audience is amused. And, there are no major repercussions for the company, apart perhaps from a spot of exhaustion. The play has undergone many rewrites and translations since it was created in 1928 and it has been presented all over the world in various languages and to very amused audiences. This is the Peter Tegel translation.
Directed by Brant Eustice, Red Phoenix presents it as a highly stylised, over-the-top, almost Commedia piece. This is not an accident. Erdman was defying naturalism and his characters were all archetypical, most of them fatuous and manipulative.
Actors shout and ham. And how. Grinning and grimacing, thumping and stomping, shrieking and weeping, and throughout, getting their tongues around an endless repetition of multi-syllable Russian names.
There are some hilarious characterisations, cartoon-like all of them, for it is a work of robust satire.
No wonder Stalin reacted.
But all the frenetic debates about communism and individual freedom have a new resonance for a 2023 audience, very much in the thrall of the Putin era and the war on Ukraine. The program notes which explain the play’s context in Soviet history are recommended reading.
It is to be recognised that Erdman stands tall in theatrical history, noted as one of the world’s great playwrights. There are some who judge The Suicide to be the perfect play.
The play’s plot is a little bit inscrutable, however. It revolves around an unemployed citizen desperately seeking some way to feed his family. When he fails at his latest plan to become a tuba player, he mentions suicide. And suddenly it is on for young and old, not to prevent him, but to capitalise on it. An array of supercilious exploiters descend to claim his death to be for their cause - from businessmen, poets, and priests to jealous women.
Therein, while one feels the familiar anguish of the wife and mother-in-law versus the faux fancifications of the would-be mistresses, the niceish Ruby Faith and the utterly audaciously hilarious Nicole Rutty. There’s a cameo one won’t forget in a hurry. Then again, if there is a fall-over-funny characterisation, it is that of Sharon Malujlo as the hapless mother-in-law charged with the task of distracting the interloper.
There is a vast cast in this play and lots of opportunities for actors to flex their skills. Ron Hoenig has not been seen on the Adelaide stage in aeons but there he is as the local butcher and when it comes to his turn to claim the prize, he’s a comic gem. The matchless Geoff Revell, of course, is sheer magic to watch onstage both as an hysterical, frenetic comic foreground character and also as a quietly reactive actor when the attention is directed elsewhere. It is clear Revell is at home in this genre.
It is Joshua Coldwell as Semyon who carries the narrative, clear of eye and diction, playing the Candide of the suicide world. And thus the rowdy predators descend.
Guffaws break out in the audience as Michael Eustice enters in the role of Aristarch, artfully strutting and blustering it out with his hair in a bizarre pompadour. And soon, the audience is informed that it has been cast into the play as The Intelligentsia. Battle lines are drawn in old Soviet tropes as the stage becomes more and more crowded with the advocates and claimants. They come and go through the quaint minimal scaffolding set which suggests doors and walls.
Indeed, the whole Studio theatre is used to accommodate the action. Bobbie Viney, showing that nose rings were in vogue in the 1920s, gives heart and well-wrought desperation to Semyon’s hapless wife. She fears for his life. Kate Anolak is a picture of competence and reliability in her role as Margarita. Sometimes she seems like the only sane one on the stage.
It is hard to focus on everyone with such a fine and large cast working with such diligent madness in this vast political pantomime, but they include: Tom Tassone, Samuel Creighton, Russell Slater, Callum Logan, Jess Corrie, Malcolm Walton, and David Lockwood.
Director Brant Eustice, with a huge and skilful Red Phoenix production team behind the scenes, has evolved this old landmark theatre piece into a spectacle of machinegun agit prop with a latter-day Brechtian edge.
It makes for a big, loud, and wild riot of a night.
When: 26 May to 2 Jun
Where: The Studio – Holden Street Theatres