On 6 September Northern Broadsides' latest production opens at, and in association with, Harrogate Theatre. On the face of it The Grand Gesture seems like a deliberate continuation of a company policy. Like last year's A Government Inspector it's an adaptation by Deborah McAndrew of a satirical Russian comedy, translated to a non-specific part of the North of England and thoroughly Englished in all social and linguistic aspects, including character names. In fact the decision to adapt and stage Nikolai Erdman's The Suicide owed much more to coincidence. Vsevolod Meyerhold, the great Russian director, created one of the seminal productions of The Government Inspector and was also responsible for staging Erdman's early plays in the 1920s.
As it happens, when Deborah and the director, her husband Conrad Nelson, were researching Meyerhold for last year's production, they were recommended to take a look at The Suicide. Immediately Deborah and Conrad found it farcical and hilarious, but that's not the whole story: Ira Gershwin knew about finding "more skies of grey than any Russian play could guarantee" and The Suicide/The Grand Gesture can be described as a dark comedy or, as Deborah herself puts it, "an existential parable".
The play tells of Simeon Duff (formerly Semyon Semyonovich Podsekalnikov), driven by despair to contemplate suicide. The original title is obviously unhelpful in marketing a comedy, but the change of name is significant. Not only does it show that such good re-namings as Dying for It and Goodbye Cruel World had already been taken, but The Grand Gesture refers to the capital others try to make out of Simeon's potential suicide, the "grand gesture". Deborah sees the major theme of the play as the way the individual human being can be treated as a commodity, a theme which is nothing if not relevant today.
More than A Government Inspector I find myself being drawn to comparisons with Dario Fo's Accidental Death of an Anarchist which Deborah adapted for Broadsides in 2006, a connection which has something to do with the lead casting in both of Michael Hugo who is capable of creating a splendidly manic stage personality. Deborah finds my comparison interesting, mainly because it's totally wrong!
"In Accidental Death Michael's character is completely in control, he is the puppet master. In The Grand Gesture he is the puppet, others control him and he has to try to take ownership of his own life."
Erdman is clearly someone whom Deborah responds warmly to, as playwright and person. He had what might fairly be termed an erratic and ill-starred career. Where his mentor Meyerhold was executed in 1940, Erdman survived, but uneasily and uncomfortably. All attempts to stage The Suicide failed, Erdman spent some time as a deportee to Siberia in the 1930s, his theatrical career was effectively ended, he was constantly subjected to restrictions, but he survived until 1970, writing mainly for children's films. Again and again Deborah emphasises his humanity and his wry wit and opines that she would rather like to have had a drink with him.
What she and Conrad Nelson couldn't do is stage The Suicide as Erdman wrote it. Apart from the indigestible names (few language features are as resistant to export as the Russian patronymic!) the original has a cast of some 35 characters. The cast of The Grand Gesture runs to 11 which is a tidy number for Broadsides non-Shakespeare. But the McAndrew method demands more than tidying up, cutting characters, translating and simplifying.
She also likes to find an equivalent English context. In this case it must be a city (The Suicide is a very urban play) and she finds the Orthodox priesthood of the original translates well to the Catholic priesthood, the gypsy band can become an Irish folk band, and so on. So it's a deal further west than the sleepy Pennine backwater of A Government Inspector and the Irish Catholic setting suggests a certain great maritime city. It's not Liverpool, but maybe a city parallel to Liverpool!
It is almost impossible to envision a Northern Broadsides production without imaginative original music, played by members of the cast. Conrad Nelson's brass band music for A Government Inspector was delightful, but this time he has a head start. The original contains a gypsy band and choral music, so the role of music is already defined – in fact nine of the cast members play instruments and there will be plenty of Irish folk music, plus a heavenly choir! The range of accents will be greater than in most Broadsides productions, including Scots, Welsh and a solitary Southerner. It is clearly a more cosmopolitan world than that of the corrupt councillors in A Government Inspector.
And Deborah McAndrew has the final word of recommendation, speaking of Erdman's original play, "Joseph Stalin suppressed it savagely – what more do you need to recommend it?"
In the course of a three-month, nine-theatre tour The Grand Gesture plays four Yorkshire theatres:
September 6-21 Harrogate Theatre
October 22-26 Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield
November 19-23 Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough
November 26-30 Viaduct Theatre, Halifax
- Ron Simpson