Alexander Pushkin’s 1833 hallucinatory prose novella is immensely theatrical and it comes as a surprise that Max Hoehn’s staging is the first time it has been imagined on an intimate scale. This tale of German military engineer Hermann, who becomes obsessed with extracting the secret of the key to unlimited wealth held by a decrepit 87-year-old Countess, combines social satire, Gothic set pieces and a warning about the dangers of attempting to create one’s own destiny. A woman wearing a scarlet coat and a hat with a veil covering her face circles the stage like a circus ringmaster and twirls a cane; a younger woman emerges from the swathes of white fabric that act as a backdrop, and a young man, clad in only his long-johns, is clearly disturbed by the spectacle.
Fusebox Productions’ strikingly theatrical and stylised approach focuses on the three characters (like the three cards) who lead the story. Some of Raymond Blankenhorn’s rhyming couplets lapse into doggerel, but, at its best, the form lends the wit and irony that drives the story a rhythmically agitated feel. Having asked Hoehn about the production’s operatic qualities, it seems more appropriate to describe it as balletic. Daniel Saleeb’s music and sound design is a key player alongside Hoehn’s emphasis on mime, integrating Russian folk tunes, the tinkling of a child’s music box and the roar of the traffic that Hermann rushes through with the Countess’s secret ringing in his ears.
After a somewhat lengthy prologue narrated by Hermann in his troubled state, we enter the story in style as a masked youthful Countess visits the ‘Wandering Jew’ Saint Germain, a strange kind of confidante with the power to make wishes come true. Hermann’s scheme to gain access to the Countess by sending love letters to her companion Liza, is played out like a silent film with jaunty piano music and exaggerated romantic gestures, the charming innocence undercut by Pushkin’s irony. The ultimate game of cards is dealt on a rocking table in what appears to be a seedy modern casino rather than a high society gathering; shifts in mood and time conveyed by Saleeb’s sound and Edmund Sutton’s lighting rather than any elaborate props.
Hoehn evokes an ambiguous sense of period with the timeless costumes, some modern turns of phrase and Liza incurs the Countess’s disdain for miserable Russian novels by reading from Anna Karenina (written 40 years after The Queen of Spades). The diminutive Norma Cohen is more eccentric than tyrannical as the Countess. There’s an unexpected moment of warmth between the Countess and Liza when the Countess brushes Liza’s hair and tells her about how women were less naïve about marriage in her day, the kind of advice a mother would give a daughter and would never appear in Pushkin.
Benjamin Way doesn’t capture the Napoleonic allure that mesmerises Liza and scares the Countess to death, but he offers a convincing portrayal of an outsider excluded by the privileged elite who have money to burn. He seems repelled by the idea of physical intimacy when the long-suffering but eager Liza, played with appealing openness by Jen Holt, throws herself at him.
Hoehn’s vision of The Queen of Spades is a bold one that’s filled with ambition (my companion commented that an adaptation she saw in Russia was much more traditional). If the production’s trump card is somewhat elusive with individual ideas more effective than the piece as a united whole, it’s an interesting and aesthetically and aurally invigorating take on one of the greatest short stories ever written.