By Anna Hayes
Fortyfive downstairs’ latest dramatic offering is an interesting beast – no pun intended. It’s an Australian premier of a UK playwright’s adaptation of a Russian novelist’s short story and, in form, it’s no less of a mix-up.
The stage show is a mix of farce, absurdism, some Shakespearean soliloquising, and four stellar performances of physical and comedic theatre.
I’ll admit that I felt a little uneasy a few minutes in – farce and absurdity, on their own, are not my forte (unless it’s incredibly good, in the case of farce) so the two of these combined should have really grated on me. If you look at anything as the sum of its parts, The Crocodile probably shouldn’t work. I should be lamenting its disjointedness or the mix of styles, or the sheer breakneck speed at which the action hurtles along.
And yet, everything about Spinning Plates Co’s The Crocodile works, not least of which being that it’s about the most fun I’ve had at a play in quite some time.
The original short story is bizarre to begin with – it ends with Ivan residing quite happily inside the crocodile, facing a divorce from his wife who he has tried, unsuccessfully, to convince to join him. UK playwright, Tom Basden changes things up a little but keeps them equally, if not more, absurd.
In the stage version, Ivan is a struggling actor (even if he won’t initially admit it), his friend Zack is a court clerk who is dating Anya, Ivan’s ex. While a lot of the Dostoevsky language and themes prevail – freedom for serfs, etc – there’s something uniquely contemporary about the piece at the same time. While the characters dress in period garb, you could see another group perform it in shorts and singlets and it wouldn’t seem out of place.
The set is simple and clever – a coffin-like box in the centre of the semi-in-the-round stage paints a somewhat foreboding image as you take your seat. The cardboard adorning the walls made me think of shanty towns, tying into the discussions around wealth and inequality through the play. It can also, as the play develops, represent the paper thinness of the newfound fame that Ivan (and to an extent, Anya) have found.
But any suggestion that you’re going to get classic dark Dostoevsky is cast aside when, instead, you get two Kool-Aid Man type entrances in the first five minutes.
Yes, The Crocodile, under the direction of Cassandra Fumi, is uproariously funny and it starts pretty much from the first moment. The set is hugely functional, offering various tricks and levels that work particularly well for the zookeeper’s first entrance. This exchange, a demand for money, is pure Python and there are loads of similar moments throughout the play – smart, sharp dialogue delivered with perfect timing and repeated just enough times not to become annoying.
James Cerché takes the leading role of Ivan, portraying him with all of the set-eating quality of a manic David Tennant. His energy on stage is infectious, no mean feat given that he performs a good deal of his dialogue from varying states of being inside a wooden box! His soliloquy about the zoo is, quite frankly, the stuff of nightmares, especially the whispered delivery of the word ‘progress’ at the end. It’s not new information – the ‘capitalism is evil/eat the rich’ narrative is tried and trusted, but told in such a visceral way, it’s really quite chilling and makes you stop and wonder about the world you live in.
By contrast, Joey Lai’s Zack is the straight man of the ensemble. His deadpan delivery of absurdly funny lines, or very ordinary lines in response to something absurd, makes his character all the funnier – I thought of Andre Braugher in Brooklyn Nine-Nine, as a similar example. Zack is a foil for the madness, he is the audience’s solid ground, so to speak. Every time you start to think things are getting completely out of hand, he steps in… and says things are getting completely out of hand! Similar to Cerché, he has massive presence on stage, partly due to his stature, but also because of his sheer naturalness in action and dialogue.
But it feels like all the actors have that comfort in their roles – they act and speak the way they do because that’s how the character would do it. Sounds simple, but the reality is often much more difficult!
In an already dramatic affair, Jessica Stanley brings a diva-like presence to the stage as the performer-turned-cushion seamstress who clearly revels in Ivan’s newfound fame. She perfectly portrays the scatty, indecisive Anya who reimagines a bizarre future with her ex-lover over a secure one with the steady, reliable Zack.
Finally, Cait Spiker has arguably the most difficult part of all as The Swing, playing a number of different roles from a crotchety zookeeper to a nervous civil servant and a shyster, schmoozing businessman.
A swing role like this is a really big ask of an actor (The 39 Steps is the example that leaps to mind) – they have to have a spectacular range and discipline, otherwise it can end up falling flat, something I have seen more often than not. But Spiker is, quite simply, immense and, were this not such a strong ensemble in its entirety, I would argue that she stole the show. She shifts effortlessly from character to character, interacts well with the audience when it’s called for, and has magnificent presence in each of the roles she takes on.
Sound and music are used effectively to create atmosphere and setting. If there’s one small gripe I have, it’s the use of the distorted vocals for Ivan when he is in the crocodile – I can understand it being used at the beginning to emphasise his rather dramatic change in environment. But it was difficult to catch the dialogue spoken through it and further use later in the play was unnecessary in my mind.
That aside, The Crocodile is a rambunctious 90 minutes of, ironically, well-crafted chaos and carnival. Forget most of what you think you know about Dostoevsky or Russian literature; simply sit back and enjoy the ride.
Images: John Dixon-Gunn