Featured Review by Tom Ward.
Monkhead Theatre’s debut piece, Dead Souls, by writer Chloë Myerson, is an adaptation from Nikolai Gogol’s infamously unfinished novel that attempts to engage its audience with a ‘well-structured narrative’, presented through the ‘wild rock & roll playfulness of experimental multimedia theatre’.
It tells the story of one man’s desire for wealth through the acquisition of souls (or dead Surfs) in 1800 ‘and something’ Russia. It does not live up to its promise. If you are going to throw around a phrase such as rock & roll you better deliver. Rock & Roll is divisive, pervasive, shocking and boundary pushing. This show is not.
Having a projector in a show does not make it multimedia as a theatrical form. Dead Souls appears more like a traditional play (in terms of plot) that is then intersected with projection, rather than a true blending of both. Placed upstage, the projector is used to both create and define space, where scenes are played throughout the rest of the building to positive comical effect, and to provide both sentence-long (amusingly subjective) descriptions of character and definitions of words (such as Surfdom). More interesting to note is Nicolas Pimparé’s creation placed centre stage, aptly named The Machine. Its mechanics cannot be described by this humble reviewer (lots of science stuff that this theatre brain can’t comprehend), but the outcome generates the bulk of the show’s sound design that punctuates shifts in performative tone. Echoing and distorting sound so violently is has the potential to impart some real theatrical bite.
And then we move onto the rest of the piece. First and foremost this cast is devoid of subtext which makes their performances one dimensional. Here performances are played for laughs – actors keep looking down at the floor and the direction is uninspired. Certain simple character-driven moments are missed and these have jarring, and lasting, effects. For example, if Chichikov’s (Joshua Jacob) briefcase containing the list of purchased souls is so important, why would he leave it unattended at the other side of the room so that it can be conveniently opened and therefore cause his downfall? It’s as if Pimparé thought as far as his multimedia concept and that’s about it.
Monkhead’s Dead Souls doesn’t pack the punches that are promised, and it doesn’t feel like it is even attempted. Yes, there are some smart moments – The Machine is genuinely intriguing and more interrogation into this craft will produce even more sophisticated, idiosyncratic instruments. The show needs a serious shift in terms of smartly directing bodies on stage and how they present text, because Dead Souls feels about 50% complete.
Director: Nicolas Pimparé
Writer: Nikolai Gogol
Adaptor: Chloë Myerson
Design: Catalina Velez (Video); Jake Carno (music)
Cast: Toby Osmond; Joshua Jacob; Jules Armana
Dead Souls played TheatreN16 until 8 July 2017. For more information, please visit the website.