Sunday, November 16, 2008

"The Nose"

The Nose is a short story by Nikolai Gogol. The Performance Corporation are currently doing a stage version of it in the Project Arts Centre, with Tom Swift doing the adaptation.

The story is simple enough. The main character is an upwardly mobile civil servant, intent on improving his status by marrying some rich heiress. But then things go horribly wrong – his nose is somehow detached from his face. Worse, the nose starts running about town on its own. The protagonist is soon horrified to discover that his nose has been promoted to a higher civil service grade than he occupies himself. If you've ever read anything by Kafka (or seen an adaptation thereof) then you'll get the basic idea. Like Kafka, this flicks backwards and forwards between being all about the existential angst and being all about the roffles.

You may be wondering, how do you represent a disembodied nose running riot on the stage? What they do is give everyone in the play a golden nose. Then, when the protagonist's nose goes AWOL, he loses his golden nose and the audience creates the mental blank. The disembodied nose's antics largely happen offstage, and funny lighting effects are resorted to when the nose's onstage presence needs to be suggested.

The drama is largely set up as a morality play. The protagonist is venal and exploitative (including towards his aged father), and losing his nose serves to thwart him in his rise. Towards the end he recovers his nose, but he throws away this second chance by acting in the same unpleasant manner as before. This all backfires horribly on him. If the play ended there, it would straightforwardly be a tale of overarching ambition leading to catastrophic failure, instructive but somewhat downbeat. But the play actually ends with one last scene between the protagonist and his father, with the two of them reminiscing over how they used to play together when the civil servant was a child. It is very poignant. The scene introduces an element of ambiguity to the ending – does the protagonist regain a sense of what is important through reconnection with his father, or is he crushed by a sense of how good things once were for him?

Anyway, I recommend this highly. Even if I have just given away the ending (to what is, after all, an adaptation of one of European literature's highpoints) anyone who likes theatre that strays away from dull naturalism will love this. My only real criticism of it would be that the scene with the TV news reporter goes on far too long. The play is pretty short, and it struck me that they might have padded this scene to give audiences the sense that they were getting value for money.

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