Russian dramatist Nikolai Erdman wrote two full-length plays: The Suicide, which is widely performed and considered his best, and The Mandate. He started a third, The Hypnotist, but left it unfinished and turned his hand to screenplays instead.
It’s a pity because the existing two are fantastic plays, with all the makings of classics - rooted in their own time (the early 20th century, a period of massive upheaval in Russia) and yet still holding universal resonance. This new English version of The Mandate has been translated by director Declan Donnellan.
In it, we meet Pavel, his mother and sister, a bourgeois family whose lives are in disarray thanks to the revolution. They have been forced out of their passive, cosy lives as the ‘unconscious social element’ and made to share their home with lodgers. Pavel is persuaded to become a communist – his sister’s engagement to a wealthy family hangs on the condition they have a communist in the family – and, in doing so, Pavel has a newfound power that proves too irresistible not to exploit.
Designer Nick Ormerod has transformed the National's Cottesloe into a thrust stage, with an earthy-coloured set and three doors that foretell the farce that’s to come. The set ought to facilitate the play, but to my mind it doesn’t. By keeping the piece in 1920s Russia and using a very old-fashioned British, almost Coward-esque, style of playing, much of the play’s modern resonance is lost.
Indeed, while the play has the farce elements of mistaken identity, secrets and lies, it needs little help in conveying this to us. Instead of having a door slam every time someone enters or exits, how much better it would have been to have a set-up where the people the Guliachkin family now have to share with – all of whom are a threat in that they might report the family’s non-communist tendencies – can be seen watching, listening, waiting.
The more skilled performers create lovely three-dimensional characters (particularly Sinead Matthews’ charmingly bemused Anastasia), but the less assured merely succeed in playing for laughs and creating entities we don’t care about in the process.
The big problem is there are too many different playing levels here within the comedy - some rise to the level of the out-of-kilter slapstick interlude music which links scenes, others are more naturalistic. I think the latter is more appropriate, particularly as the cast are forced to address the audience at points and, if we don’t believe in characters, how on earth can we interact with them.
Nevertheless, it's impossible to deny that the moments of physical comedy are impeccably timed and Erdman’s wonderful play isn’t completely lost somehow, even if the pieces don’t all fall together as they should.