The Grand Gesture: suicide is big business

Victor Stark supposedly comforts Simeon Duff.

The latest McAndrews-Nelson collaboration from Northern Broadsides, an update of The Suicide takes a a long time to get going. But it’s worth it for the end.

There was a famous moment in history when a monk set himself on fire in Vietnam in protest against the persecution of Buddhists. Since then, there have been many high-profile political suicides protesting against lots of things: Vietnam war, communism, nuclear war, women’s rights, and most recently austerity in the EU. Most suicides, however, are low-key non-political affairs – and such wasted opportunities. This, at least, is the premise of Nikolai Erdman’s 1920s play, The Suicide, where an unscrupulous landlord sells political soundbites on a tenant’s suicide note to the highest bidders.

Originally written and set in Russia, this play originally portrayed Stalin in a bad light. Not because there was anything against him personally, but because it made him go down in a history books as a humourless bastard (on top of less serious charges such as, oh, mass murder). The original play only made it into rehearsals before Stalin personally banned it, and had the director included in one of his purges a few years later. Contrast this to last year’s Northern Broadside pick, The Government Inspector: Tsar Nicholas I, normally a notorious autocrat, thought it was hilarious and overruled his own censors. Anyway, this unsporting behaviour of Mr. S and subsequent Soviet leaders meant the play had to wait until 1979 for a performance. And whilst The Government Inspector has enjoyed endless adaptations on the easily transplantable subject of petty local corruption, most performances of The Suicide remain set in Russia.

But in Northern Broadsides, Deborah McAndrews and Conrad Nelson specialise in transplanting classic plays to modern day northern England, and now it’s the turn of The Suicide to get the treatment. And so, The Grand Gensture begins with Simeon Duff (Semyon Semyonovitch in the original) bemoaning his unemployment. With his wife as the sole breadwinner, Simeon thinks he’s on the scrapheap. He talks about ending it all, and even gets a suicide note on standby: “In the event of my death, I blame no-one.” When his wildly optimistic dream to make it big as a tuba player collapses, he’s really low. Still probably not sufficiently depressed to be that serious but shooting himself, but why let that silly detail get in the way of a good commercial opportunity?

Although The Suicide was originally meant to satirise a communist regime, it’s proved surprisingly easy to transplant this into a world where capitalism is king. All the people trying to profit from Simeon’s death are supposedly left-wing political idealists for a fairer world, but underneath are shallow greedy self-obsessed souls just as bad the corrupt right-wingers they claim to stand against. First up is Victor Stark, a horribly horribly hypocritical and egotistical left-wing author, brought to life in a wonderful performance by Rob Pickavance. “How are you?” he asks. When Simeon say he’s fine, Stark apologises – he must have got the wrong flat. Having established that he is Simeon Duff and “I’m fine” was actually code for “I’m not fine”, Stark looks at his draft suicide note. Blaming no-one? Such a waste. There’s plenty of people you could be blaming: government, bankers, capitalists, you name it! And as a sweetener, he will be immortalised in history. The fine print: Simeon absolutely must recommend that all and sundry read the books of the great Victor Stark. Then comes an equally self-obsessed student trying to get the man she wants, and what better help than another man’s suicide – just write a note that say you were driven to it by the desire of a beautiful yet unobtainable woman.

When you’re transplanting a play from its original setting, a good measure is whether it looks like the new setting was how the play was meant to be written. On the whole, McAndrew does a good job, but there is one bit that doesn’t quite work. Next in the queue is a priest and a businessman. I didn’t quite get what they were hoping to gain from the suicide note. And then the really confusing one: another student appears (this time a feminist sort who organises bare-breasted protests), also trying to grab a love interest. Was it two students after the same guy? If not, why weren’t they at each other’s throats? Maybe this would be explained if I studied the script more closely, but you shouldn’t need to do that to enjoy the play. Something, I fear, was lost in translation there. Still, it’s good fun to watch the five haggle over a draft suicide note that gives sufficient weight to all of their causes before Simeon copies the note into its own handwriting.

The Grand Gesture is a play that takes a long time to get going. A lot of the story in the first half sets up the scene is a quite predictable way. But it’s worth sitting through it, because once the story really gets underway, once the day of the suicide is set up and the vultures all expose the worst of themselves, it’s a play that still makes you think long after the Soviet regime the original play parodied is no more. And in spite of the very serious theme, it remains very funny from start to finish.

Being a Northern Broadsides McAndrew/Nelson collaboration, there is the usual amount of singing and instrument playing from a multi-talented task once again. It maybe doesn’t quite live up to the extremely high standards of last year’s A Government Inspector, but then that was probably unbeatable. Northern Broadsides are clearly on to a winner with this format, and the only question remains of how many classic plays can they adapt this way before they run out of scripts to adapt and ideas on how to adapt them? That must be a worry at the back of their minds. But Northern Broadsides do seem to have a knack of finding plays that no-one has heard of. I’d certainly certain never heard of The Suicide before, and a few years ago they discovered a brilliant Harold Brighouse play, The Game, that was inexplicably out of print (in spite of being an alarmingly prophetic football play involving match-fixing, financial struggles, alienation of fans etc.) If they run out of ideas, it won’t be any time soon.

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