Nikolai Erdman’s exhilarating satirical comedy The Suicide (1928) – rather needlessly re-titled at the Almeida in Moira Buffini’s ebullient new version as Dying for It – was banned by Stalin and not seen in the Soviet Union until 1983 – four years after a famous RSC production starring Roger Rees as Semyon Semyonovich, the depressed, unemployed anti-hero.
It was one of the RSC’s most important discoveries and survived in their repertoire for three years. Since then, Derek Jacobi has enjoyed a great success in the play, Matthew Warchus directed a fizzing version for the National Youth Theatre and the fringe has had a couple of goes, too.
But Anna Mackmin’s revival is still likely to hit an audience like a tidal wave, such is the vitality of the playing and the brilliance of Tom Brooke – moth-eaten, angular, glassy-eyed and slightly deranged, a sort of anorexic, slow-witted Tommy Cooper – as Semyon. Unlike Rees or Jacobi, he is palpably ingrained working class, and there are no great efforts made to point up the Hamlet comparisons.
Semyon has decided to kill himself, and various interested parties turn up to claim his demise for their cause. An intellectual (Ronan Vibert) wants an example for the nation, a romantic admirer (Michelle Dockery) for her own glory, a drunken priest (Tony Rohr) for the benefit of his congregation and a card-carrying postman (Paul Rider) for the good of the party. The time is fixed and a celebratory wake arranged before the fatal shot is fired.
All poor old Semyon has ever wanted is a quiet life and a living wage. In one of the funniest passages, he dreams of wealth as a tuba player and acquires an instrument with instructions. Eventually blowing a big fat raspberry, he envisages wealth and security. Within a few minutes he is tearing the deceptive manual to shreds.
The second half of the play spirals into black farce, with the vodka-fuelled party spinning out of control, and Semyon making a hash of things but playing the role of a corpse anyway, so as not to spoil the occasion. The coffin duly arrives and he obligingly jumps in but, after various hilarious twists and turns, an optimistic outcome is suggested only to be tainted by an unplanned suicide from left field.
Although the play is set in the time it was written, the late 1920s, it reeks of pre-Revolutionary despair and corruption, thus failing to meet the cultural guidelines of the day. Its comically defiant spirit is superbly maintained in Mackmin’s production, which is set in Lez Brotherston’s grey communal slum of rooms on two levels linked by a Soviet-style spiral staircase and wrought iron balcony.
Semyon’s devoted wife and truculent mother-in-law are colourfully played by Liz White and Susan Brown. There is notable support, too, from Sophie Stanton as the full-throated, slop-swilling coffee-shop owner (and Semyon’s lover) and Barnaby Kay as another slum-dweller, his friend, who make riotous offstage love while Semyon considers his imminent demise. Nothing like neighbours to make you not feel at home!
- Michael Coveney