Thanks to Lolita, Nabakov is a kind of by-word for an outsider’s perspective on toxic mid-century American suburbia. His short stories, which Belka Productions adapt here, are less saccharine, more sour. Russian emigres in 1920s and 1930s Berlin mourn burnt-down dashas – especially if pretty young women are in earshot – drown their sorrows in drink, cocaine and unromantic liaisons, and most of all, travel, in this stylishly contrived, cabaret approach to their wandering stories.
The evening is introduced by a gleefully charismatic Peter Clements as Frau Monde, who morphs from demented nightclub hostess, archly flirtatious confidante or cantankerous old bag as the situation dictates – she is the devil, after all. But rather than separate the three stories into discrete entities, this framing device ties them together. Rosy Benjamin and Ben Maier’s ingenious adaptation splices their narratives into a fluid, fast-moving hall – the rapid shifts from story to story echoing the long train rides and wanderings they describe.
Agnes Treplin’s sumptous, meticulous design alights, with the years of Nabokov’s 1922-37 residency in Berlin to choose from, on an elegant 1930s style of fashion-plate perfect coats and frocks. Centre stage, scaffolding poles outline the form of a train carriage, with slickly opening and closing doors revealing a succession of intimate interior scenes.
The play’s titular “Dashing Fellow” is, of course, anything but – he’s Nabokov’s archetype of the philistine, a concept he returned to again and again in his writing. Konstantin (an appropriately grotesque Joel Gorf) is an exile who lacks the imaginative powers to escape the mundane except through nostalgia for Russia, or meaningless sexual encounters. His rehearsed chat-up lines snare the easily impressed Sonja (Madeline Knight) as they share a train carriage. Lena (Kate Craggs) isn’t so easily caught. She’s been separated from her husband Alexey (Luke Courtier) in their journey from Russia and is doggedly searching for him, while he works as a train guard and forgets his misery in cards and cocaine. Simon Eves’ ingenious, fluid direction means that characters from other stories appear as bit parts, or watch mutely, still in character. Poignantly, Lena and Alexey are invariably marooned on opposite sides of the stage.
A Nursery Tale departs from the naturalism of the other two tales, as a bleak fairytale of flawed wish fulfillment. The devil, Frau Monde, lets painfully shy Erwin choose women to sleep with in a house designed to perfectly enclose his every fantasy. The only condition is that he most choose an even number.
In keeping with the high cabaret tone Frau Monde sets and stringently maintains, the acting across the stories is arch, and relies on the clasping of chests at moments of high emotion, of heaving breaths and bold, down on one’s knees gestures. It goes some way to making sense of these characters, twisting them into grotesques, but sometimes means moments miss their emotional mark. As Erwin, Edward Cole’s signature move is a rodent-like sniff at the air, like a perverted Childcatcher, making him as much the villain of his own story as the devil herself. He’s a kind of proto-Humbert Humbert – several of his “choices” are disturbingly young – and perhaps the nastiness of his story would have more bite if we were allowed to sympathise with him a little more.
Although in a sense, Erwin’s story feels out of place here, his status as fumbling outsider in sophisticated Berlin is key to understanding the Russian exiles experiences. His humiliations by the urbane Frau Monde, woman of the world, heightened versions of Nabokov’s acute perceptions of never-quite-fitting life on the move. This production safely houses his transients in an elegantly gliding evocation of a short-lived era; they’re unlovable, but beautifully made.