With a promising script and interesting ideas, Dead Souls would be a fantastic show if it just stopped trying to do too much at once.
Dead Souls is a new production by Monkhead Theatre. It is based on the unfinished 1842 century novel by Gogol, adapted for stage by Chloë Myerson and directed by Nico Pimparé.
Chloë Myerson has impressive credits behind her name and so I had high expectations of the writing. I wasn’t disappointed: it is witty and sharp and (at least initially) carried me with raptured interest. The language is very well crafted, the characters vibrant. There are some pacing issues; scenes that drag too long, moments of tension not fully earnt. I think this is as much to do with the direction as the writing but that fine attention to the arcs and peaks of dramatic tension, the careful sculpting of the shifts in mood, that level of precision that makes a good production a great one, is missing.
This issue carries through into the performances, which are generally good but lack much of an arc or shift throughout the performance. The first scene between Chichikov and Manilov as they discuss the purchase of ‘dead souls’ is full of an exciting nervous energy. Manilov is played with a childish intensity which works very well. My problem is there is not enough of a shift between characters, or indeed within characters. The dramatic ending doesn’t feel earned because the character hasn’t developed enough to earn it. The characters feel two dimensional and this could have worked had they been more caricatured and crafted more acutely, but more attention needs paying to the concept of how the characters are presented.
I think much of my issues above with the direction and character development could easily be ironed out. The script and concept are bubbling with potential, but more time and attention needs to be given to those elements. The narrative arcs and characters should be honed to perfection. I do wonder if the other elements on stage have distracted from that attention to detail.
I really loved the idea behind ‘The Machine’ which been concocted by ex-physicist now-director Nico Pimparé and consists of a microphone hanging above a symbol sat center stage. ‘The Machine’ uses a loop between the microphone and a cymbal to create ambient and eerie soundscapes. I understand it is a symbol of of Chichikov’s own soul, and it adds an eerie atmosphere to the moments he addresses us directly. However, it doesn’t feel fully utilised or explored. This interplay between sound science and performance is very interesting; it just needs more space to breathe.
On top of the intense performances and The Machine creating a central focus on stage, they have also incorporated live video feedback – taking us into the ‘real world’ for some of the scenes and placing the characters in situations where they have to interact with the public. I understand the political point being made when we see Chichokov asking the population of Balham for information about wealthy landowners so that he might buy more dead souls, and it does feel particularly poignant in our current political climate, but I don’t need the point to be made for me. The act of staging this play here and now is political in itself and I didn’t need to have the links driven home so forcefully. Trust your audience. The other issue with this is that any sense of immersion into the world being crafted by the language and performances is broken the moment I see the actors in this stairwell I myself was climbing only minutes before. I do not believe theatre is only good for crafting fictional worlds, but I do believe that you should make a conscious decision about the world your performance operates in, instead I feel I being jerked rudely away from my imagination just at the moments I am beginning to believe.
I think this has some great potential as a piece of theatre. With more attention to the dramaturgical arcs, the precision of the characters and perhaps dropping the video feedback, this could be honed to something extremely sharp, clever and political. There are fantastic ideas at play here; there is just too much being attempted in one short performance.