Review: The Queen of Spades, Arcola Theatre

“I thought I saw the Countess quiver.
‘Fret not, it was just the start of rigor.

There are some things I know a fair bit about and there are others I do not and Alexander Pushkin is one of those. Ask me to name a couple of Russian writers then I’d give you Chekhov and Tolstoy, but Pushkin has never really crossed my radar before despite him apparently being the Russian Shakespeare, according to t’internet. So the adaptation of his short story The Queen of Spades that has just started at the Arcola Theatre’s smaller Studio 2 held a little intrigue for me but for once, absolutely no preconceptions about how it ‘should’ be done or indeed any knowledge of what it was about.

What unfolded in Fusebox’s imaginative production was a kind of twisted dreamscape in which creepy circus performers ushered us to our seats, half-naked men appeared from the artfully arranged mountain of sheets that filled the stage and grasping hands tried to pull him back. As we come to find out, the man is Hermann – an officer in the Russian army – who has been committed to a mental asylum and the circus figure is an old woman who torments his psyche. The story of how Hermann ended up here is then told in nightmarish flashback through a range of theatrical devices.

Perhaps with a nod to the fact that this story is one which has been adapted into numerous operas, here it has been shaped into verse form by Raymond Blankenhorn with a healthy liberal attitude and so it is full of rhyming couplets and a sense of wry humour which releases this 1833 story into a more timeless space. Pushkin’s tale is a cautionary one about the addictive effects of gambling and the dangers of tempting fate and so didn’t seem to suffer from not being anchored into its specific original context. Rather, it blossomed under Max Hoehn’s innovative direction which pulled together the disparate elements rather well.

As the main protagonist, Benjamin Way’s soldier carried much of the weight of the story-telling and his mellifluous voice delivered the verse extremely well, capturing the wit in there without overplaying it. His physicality works in interesting ways, making Hermann an intriguing figure as he tumbles further and further down the rabbit hole as having heard of a secret gambling trick that will make his fortune, he does all he can to get his hands on it. That includes seducing the spirited Liza, an energetic Jen Holt, and fatally shocking the frail old Countess, an eccentric turn from Norma Cohen, who possesses the secret but keeps the sting in the tail hidden.

Daniel Saleeb’s sound design, including his own original music, is highly atmospheric and the moments when physical theatre comes to the fore highlights just how effective it is. Some scenes are played in mime, almost like silent films, and I loved these as the quirky verse does get a little repetitive at times and didn’t always quite feel so necessary. On the whole, I felt there were quite a few scenes that could have been trimmed, there was something of the sense that the material was being stretched a little, but the final card game when Hermann attempts to secure his fortune is most powerful for its reliance on the former rather than the latter, the theatricality being the thing that remains in the mind.

So there you go: reviewers familiar with Pushkin’s work will undoubtedly have much more to say about how this relates to the original story and indeed the operas and whether it adheres to the Russian’s intentions, but I’m not going to pretend that I can engage on that level – Wikipedia will only get me so far! But as a piece of straight-up theatre, free from any preconceptions, I found this to be a quirkily imaginative and exciting show: by no means perfect but completely unafraid to experiment and all the better for it.

Running time: 80 minutes (without interval)
Photo: Nick Coupe

Booking until 12th November

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