Graham Dickson’s boldly original show The Narcissist straddles the boundary between theatre and comedy. It’s meticulously scripted, divided into a series of interrelated sketches, which takes for their many surreal points of departure ‘one of the world’s greatest unsung literary talents’ Grigoriy Alexeivich Dhukov, a brilliantly funny early twentieth century Russian absurdist whose work I was eager to explore further. Dickson, an actor, writer and comic performer by trade, pulls together all these talents in a show made up of dramatised scenes from Dhukov’s life and work as well as, in a metatheatrical conceit, the show in rehearsal as Dickson’s alter-ego, a highly affected actor with delusions of artistic grandeur, pieces it tortuously together. Often he is in conflict with his director, Hamish, whose increasingly querulous voice is boomed, via the amplification system, from the theatre tech-box at the rear.
Dhukov’s verbally dexterous writing is gloriously and darkly off-the-wall, and often resolves in violence, while the scenes from his childhood are likewise surreal and cruel. We have the junior Dhukov, for example, crawling towards his imposing father and offering up his notebook in terrified supplication. His father, receiving these juvenile attempts at fiction, makes positive noises only to thrust the book violently across the room at the tiniest grammatical provocation. The little Dhukov retrieves the book and tremblingly hands it over for more paternal clucking before the book is again thrown away in another nonsensical outburst of rage. The thing to admire here is that there is only Dickson on stage and yet his father’s phantom force, with its savagely precise snatching and thrusting, is conjured powerfully into being. Later we are to learn that his father is a “slippery…slippery character” whose “life is a work of non-friction”.
Dickson plays the adult Dhukov with old-world suavity, casually throwing out mind-bending one-liners in the assured, velvet-voiced tones of one who has long since risen above the tedious world of normality.
In retrospect this brand of serene existential absurdity reminds me very much of the humour of Peter Cook, a man who was often criticised for squandering his brilliance on sketch comedy when he could have marshalled it into something more….lasting…highbrow…meaningful. There are those who would have placed him alongside Pinter and Beckett in the pantheon but for his lamentable inclination to write chiefly for laughs. This was, arguably, to misunderstand Cook’s raison d’être and therefore to do him a great disservice. Nevertheless this links vaguely with my feeling that Dickson’s show is at its poetic and intellectual best, and indeed funniest, when it is busy being drama, driven along by its own internal agency, as opposed to those laughter-seeking moments when the language moves out of the literary and into the vernacular, or when the performance takes on the shape of a more conventional comedy sketch. This is not to deny, however, the masterful quality of Dickson’s comic performance or those moments of sublime brilliance this show undoubtedly attains.
Meanwhile, back at home, I eagerly google this overlooked man of letters. I am sure that a trove of literary treasure awaits me. What I discover, however, is this: Grigoriy Alexeivich Dhukov’s name exists only in tandem with Graham Dickson’s. In short, he does not exist, save as an outcrop of Dickson’s wonderful mind. I have been the victim of a wonderful ruse. I am a fool.
And I couldn’t be more delighted.