As male characters dominate many canonical texts, the lack of onstage gender diversity has been a bit of a sticking point for some theatre makers recently. One solution has been to cast women in roles traditionally performed by men – see Maxine Peake’s recent Hamlet, the Donmar’s Henry IV.
Greyscale and Dundee Rep Ensemble’s co-production of Nikolai Gogol’s short story begins with the cast donning their (historically) male attire in a masculine demeanour which climaxes in a football hooligan-esque bout of grunts and cheers before the rising tones of the music signals that things are about to begin.
Iharev (Amanda Hadingue) is a crafty gambler who has developed a special deck of cards that mean he can never lose. Jonesing for the heady rush he got from his big win last month, he is desperate to find some more schmucks to dupe into losing against him. Unfortunately, upon journeying to a rural Russian town, the trio of gentlemen he entreats into a quick hand, have sniffed out his wily antics and are keen to capitalise on the stranger’s remarkable skill for duplicity. They band together to plot the financial ruin of visiting wealthy landowner Old Glov, but who is the real victim?
Although Gogol’s story was published in 1843, Selma Dimitrijevic’s production is located in a seductively ambiguous era. Oliver Townsend’s minimal set (it is a touring show) uses a number of metal and wood gym benches (the kind with coat hooks above and a shoe rack below) that would look just as suitable in the period setting of Downton Abby as in the ultra modern Utopia. Although this loose arrangement of furniture is all that delineates the walls and seating of the iniquitous den, the pared down structure adds to the atmosphere of these games being seedy, almost illicit, back street entertainment. Free from the faux grandeur of expensive casinos, this is raw gambling, about the adrenalin rush of winning and getting one over on one’s peers, and could happen anywhere with chairs and a table.
The smudging of decades is repeated in Townsend’s costumes as the “gentlemen”, respectably attired in suspenders and jackets, could happily be transplanted into the 19th century, while the ambitious soldier Young Glov sports a Sex Pistols t-shirt. You might assume the rhythmic chords of Gavin Coward’s Baltic composition (played by the cast) gives a definite location to the setting, but even this isn’t too precise as the borders of the former USSR have waxed and waned like the moon throughout modern history – if Putin gets his way they might well absorb Ukraine too – so even the precise geography of the play is left tantalisingly mysterious.
This ambiguity all feeds into the decision to produce the show with an all female cast. Through blurring these (questionably) significant details, Dimitrijevic appears to be challenging whether any preconceived conceptions of what might be thought to be the necessary constructs of a particular production, have to be realised accurately. If an audience is able to understand that while they might not physically be in Russia that is where the play is set, why shouldn’t they be equally happy to appreciate that although these actors have long hair and breasts, that for the duration of this performance, they are for all intents and purposes, men.
For a narrative about deception, it would be difficult not to see parallels to the political establishment. Scenes of the devious tricksters scheming how to fleece Old Glov, have a rather unpalatable flavour of modern politics – cemented by Iharev actively convincing himself that he deserves Old Glov’s money more than he does. Furthermore, the manner in which the gamblers cajole and manipulate the bank clerk into bending the rules for their own profit strengthens these similarities. But with very little on stage being what it is supposed to be (the caviar is a satchel filled with grapes) deception is apparent in every element of the production. What Dimitrijevic seems to be saying is that these things like gender shouldn’t matter because the theatre is a medium that relies upon dishonesty and invention, and the audience already understand they are complicit in the charade. That’s the whole point.