Upon entering the Print Room’s new home, it somehow feels perfectly normal to find a dishevelled Harry Lloyd in a battered leather armchair, waving at you. A theatre in a former life, a Sprague no less, the former Coronet Cinema in Notting Hill is a beautiful, faded place, with aged graffiti on the walls of its backstage spaces and a tangible sense of the past about it. Paint has been scraped from windows and rooms unbricked.
It’s an appropriate setting for the one-man play christening its opening. Adapted by Lloyd and French director Gerald Garutti from the novella by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground delves into the tortured mind of a man who has closed himself off from society for more than ten years. It’s a dark dance around what identity means when you’ve picked yourself apart until there’s nothing left but frenzied doubt.
On a stage constructed from old books, against a backdrop of many pages of scribbled writing, a shadow-cast Lloyd berates us from his self-made prison of over-thinking. Gimlet-eyed and grinning, he warns us that he’s going to be spiteful. The ex-Game of Thrones star gives a riveting performance – mercurial, sharp-edged and full of gleeful masochism over his own misery. He paces the stage with spittle-flecked, near-predatory delight.
The play is a provocation to the idea of audience expectations. “You’re not going to like this,” we’re quickly told. From the start, Lloyd’s nameless man tells us he’s lying. He refuses to allow us to grant significance to anything he says. He continually undercuts his conclusions – however tentative – as the false workings of a mind still labouring under the illusion that life has a point. It becomes as much a crisis of the tenets of theatre as an existential one.
While that’s all fine and good, it can make watching the play tough-going – particularly towards the end. As Lloyd builds up and deconstructs yet another scenario from his former life, the piece’s initial electric charge begins to weaken as a sense of repetition sets in. That may well be the point, but – crucially – it has a distancing effect rather than exerting a pull. What works in the private space of the page feels laboured on stage.
Yet Garutti and Lloyd tease out the sly humour in Dostoyevsky, with Lloyd nicely playing up his character’s affronted incredulity at being absent-mindedly moved out of the way by a man he then proceeds to stalk obsessively. The direction is fluid, Bertrand Couderc’s lighting is atmospheric and Bernard Vallery’s soundscape rises and falls ominously in the background.
But what’s lacking is enough of those snatched moments when Lloyd’s intellectually superior façade drops, he locks eyes with us and we see the utter loneliness in his character’s hermit-like existence. These rare instances of introspection and doubt – of being hopelessly lost – are the fault-lines that crack open the play.