It all starts with a sausage – a piece of liverwurst that Masha begrudges her husband in the middle of the night. Piqued by her outburst at being woken up, Semyon sneaks out of their apartment to enjoy his sausage in peace. But one overactive imagination leads to another, and soon the whole town is convinced Semyon is about to commit suicide, so they clamour for his attention – and for a place of honour in his suicide note.
Working under the shadow of Dostoyevsky and Chekhov, playwright Nikolai Erdman's The Suicide explores Soviet Russia’s collapsing infrastructure in this black comedy about an unemployed man who is driven to desperate means by a host of stereotypical Slavic characters.
Neil Sheppeck plays a typical member of the Soviet intelligentsia confidently while Luke Stevenson’s Marxist Yegor is entirely believable. The host of female characters vying for the attention of Semyon unfortunately meld into a fairly indiscernible lot, with Sara Hirsch’s Victor, a champion of the arts in Russia, a welcome contrast to female suitors.
As with the Russian greats, the dialogue is the focus in this play and the opening exchanges between Masha and Semyon are sharp and brilliantly witty. Erdman manages to indict the entire Soviet system while still creating empathetic characters. If the first half is a tight stab at a broken system, the second loses all sense of urgency and the writing becomes lazier. As if to draw attention from the flabby final scenes the cast descend into slapstick, eschewing the black comedy of the strong opening.
Perhaps the play is simply too long and certainly it becomes too loud: the lights go out on stage and Semyon creeps from the room as other characters flail to find a candle; revellers throw vodka around in a debauched party scene and finally, the audience is left feeling awkward as a Benny Hill style chase scene flies around the venue for far too long. But this cannot hide the unfortunate loosening of a previously tightly wound play.
Damian Cooper’s lead performance appeals throughout and brings the audience through with a darkly comic conclusion. It is a witty piece that manages to create humour out of a serious subject without being flippant: a decent helping of liverwurst then, if slightly overcooked.
- Patrick Brennan