"I do not have a very high opinion of the play The Suicide," wrote Josef Stalin to Konstantin Stanislavsky, "...nevertheless, I am not against the theatre experimenting and showing its skill." Despite the tentative go-ahead, the play was not produced during the lifetime of Nikolai Erdman, its author, presumably because the miserable outlook was just a little too close to the bleakness of the communist regime for the comrades.
In his adaptation, Simon Stone of Melbourne-based company the Hayloft Project has again proved his ability to create high quality, intelligent theatre, following on from the success of The Only Child (Belvoir St, 2009).
Semyon Semyonovich (Gareth Davies) is risibly inadequate at life. He has been out of work for a while, and feeling a bit emasculated by his wife Maria (Anne-Louise Sarks), who is bringing home the bacon (and the liver sausage). Semyon is harried by his mother-in-law (Johnny Carr is reminiscent of Monty Python in his pleated wool skirt and hair curlers). After failing to learn to play the tuba, he petulantly decides that the best thing to do is to kill himself.
Enter Aristarch, a velvety-smooth fellow who promises Semyon's family millions in exchange for the sponsorship rights to his suicide. All Semyon must do is choose from a series of hilarious causes such as "have you considered suicide bombing?" and "abortion: nip it in the bud."
There's a lot of talent on display here, with the tight ensemble slipping seamlessly between characters and doubling as a human orchestra. While melodrama and farce are high on the menu, and a protracted volley of doubles-entendres teeters on the edge of over-the-top, Stone's adaptation is careful not to test the patience of a 21st century audience, and some very dry, knowing wit also features. Shelly Lauman even manages to make clearing up after a party a scream.
Davies and Sarks work up a complex relationship: a mix of arch absurdism and poignant honesty. Davies, who was a hit as Lysander/Flute in Company B's A Midsummer Night's Dream, is all goggle-eyed hilarity, while Sarks, as his long-suffering yet loving wife, is the perfect foil, with a calmer style of comedy.
Many thematic layers are there for the excavating in this tragicomedy - from peer pressure to creepily insidious marketing ploys - but it's also a plain old good time and a very stylish production. Vivienne Egan