In 1928, Nikolai Erdman, a Russian satirist living in Stalin's Russia, wrote The Suicide, a subversive comedy about a man so suffocated by the brutal totalitarian regime under which he lives that he decides the only way out is to commit suicide. When his intentions become known by his equally downtrodden neighbours, all they can think about is how best they might benefit from such a tragedy.
Needless to say, the play was banned by the Soviet authorities and Erdman found himself in prison. Though The Suicide was never staged in his lifetime, over the years it has gained a reputation for being one of the very best plays to have emerged from Communist Russia. The first English version was seen in Britain in 1979 in a production by the Royal Shakespeare Company, followed by a Broadway staging in 1980.
I wish I could report that the latest incarnation justifies the play’s reputation, but as adapted by Suhayla El-Bushra and set in contemporary London, it’s a pretty dismal evening’s entertainment. Although a programme note makes reference to the number of young disenchanted and disenfranchised young males who commit suicide in this country every year, trying to make the case that life in contemporary Britain can be just as grim as it was in Russia under Stalin just doesn’t wash.
Nor does it help that in this updated version the central character, Sam Dessai, is the harbinger of his own misery, not the state. He’s been a lazy, jobless slob for years, misses appointments due to tardiness and lives off the earnings of his hard-working wife (Rebecca Scroggs) and mother-in-law (Ashley McGuire).
Because he cannot afford to buy the car he has his eye on, he decides to top himself by jumping off the roof of the tower block in which he lives. Though he doesn’t go through with it, his half-hearted attempt is caught on an iPhone and goes viral.
In no time at all, Sam’s would-be suicide is appropriated by an ambitious local up-market cafe owner who, with an eye to generating free publicity, persuades Sam to have his last supper in her establishment. Also trying to get in on the act is an opportunistic documentary filmmaker waiting for his big break, a rapper determined to write a hit song about the impending tragedy, and a social worker and local councillor who each have their own political agendas for encouraging the suicide.
Taking advantage of the National Theatre’s generous resources, director Nadia Fall, working at a frantic pace with a cast of 20 and an elaborate set (by Ben Stones) that hardly stops moving, throws everything at the production – touches of German Expressionism, animation projection, traditional British farce, rock-concert lighting, a ridiculous dream sequence involving Margaret Thatcher – but to no avail. What she cannot camouflage is that with a leading man as unsympathetically played by Javone Prince, there is no one to root for. You simply don’t care whether he lives or dies.
Apart from Scroggs as Sam’s long-suffering wife and McGuire as his sexually rampant mother-in-law, the rest of the cast are in exhaustingly frantic mode throughout and, without exception, play pretty revolting characters. Yes, there are some funny lines sprinkled throughout, but not enough to justify spending two and a half hours with people as unpleasant and as unattractive as these.