Desperate poverty, freezing cold dark nights, starving Russian peasants and a man threatening to commit suicide. Not the ingredients you would normally expect to find in a comedy, but Dying For It at the Almeida is billed as ‘gloriously funny’. Jo Fletcher-Cross attended the first night to see whether there really can be laughter in all this gloom.
Dying For It is an adaptation of Nikolai Erdman’s The Suicide, which gained notoriety for its Russian writer after it was banned by Stalin in 1932. The play was seen as deeply subversive – after all, why would anyone want to kill themselves in a Stalinist utopia? Playwright Moira Buffini has taken Erdman’s tale of a despairing unemployed young man, Semyon (Tom Brooke) and made it resonate with modern audiences.
The opening, where the auditorium and stage are suddenly plunged into darkness as if there is a power cut, accompanied by a deeply disturbing cacophony of strange, industrial noises, sets the grim but humorous tone. Semyon wakes his long-suffering wife Masha (Liz White) to see if they have any food, and they argue in the dark until she loses patience and lights a candle. In the grim, flickering light the poverty of the couple is obvious – they are sharing a tiny bed in the hallway of a broken-down and dirty building. When Semyon disappears after saying he wants to ‘end it all’, Masha fears the worst and rouses the neighbours to help her.
He hasn’t killed himself yet, but thanks to his neighbour Alexander (Barnaby Kay) indiscreetly chatting at tart-with-a-heart Margarita’s (Sophie Stanton) bar, the word soon gets out that he is thinking of suicide. Strangers begin to turn up on his doorstep begging him to mention their favourite cause in his suicide note. Aristarkh (Ronan Vibert) emotionally implores him to do it for the intellectuals, Father Yelpidy (Tony Rohr) is called to talk him out of the terrible sin of self-murder and ends up asking him to do it and write a letter blaming it on his lack of belief in God, and romantic Kleopatra has fallen in love with him and begs him to name her – several times – in his last words. The causes keep coming and Semyon begins to feel like he really is doing something important.
Although the play is clearly set in Russia, with Russian songs and music being played at the party which Margarita organises for Semyon’s last night on earth, the accents are northern working class, and the humour is bawdy and curiously English. This story of those on the breadline being driven to terrible acts by their despair has a strong message for a 21st century, politically disillusioned British audience.
Lez Brotherston has designed an effective, noisy, dirty four-level house where the light never really gets a chance to penetrate the murk. There is plenty of dark humour in this tale of a man who only becomes important when he decides to die, and a great deal of tragedy too.