The Gamblers

Nikoli Gogol's The Gamblers (premiered in 1843) is relatively rarely-performed, at least in comparison with the writer's most famous work, The Government Inspector. Perhaps the latter is more popular because of its broad satirical brushstrokes, and the writer’s decision to ensure his audience is completely in on the deception at its heart. In comparison, The Gamblers is dryer, more ironic; its characters are less extreme, while the audience runs into the story’s big “reversal of fortune” at the same time as its victim.

Oliver Townsend’s unassuming set cleverly echoes both grim gymnasium and old-school men’s changing room

To what extent The Gamblers is a “classic” piece of theatre, however, is debatable. The team at Newcastle-based theatre company Greyscale clearly believe it contains a sufficient kernel of universal truth to make it so; that Gogol’s 19th century portrayal of professional card-sharks’ addiction to risk, gambling and deception is remarkably prescient in the aftermath of a 21st century financial crash largely founded on the testosterone-fuelled world of bankers and the institutionalised gambling of the financial markets; all of which were grounded on the idea that (as one character in The Gamblers puts it) “You can make something out of nothing”. No wonder then that one of the most significant supporting characters, amusingly portrayed by Zoe Lambert, is a banker by the name of Zamukhryshkin, protesting his moral and financial certitude while eagerly snatching money from all those around him.

While this new translation by director Selma Dimitrijevic and Mikhail Durnenkov relies, perhaps too much, on making fun of long Russian names to get some of its laughs, the most questionable element of the actual production is the decision to highlight the masculinity on display by casting six women –albeit dressed in Wall Street suits that act as both armour and mark of status –to play all the roles. As “jokes” go, though, this doesn’t really go anywhere after the first five minutes, and while the cast — notablly Emily Winter as “gang leader” Shvohnev, find some depths in their characters, there’s little additional value to be had from the spectacle of women pretending to be men.

On the plus side, Oliver Townsend’s unassuming set cleverly echoes both grim gymnasium and old-school men’s changing room – an atmosphere underscored by the action starting and stopping with the piercing blast of a whistle. An additional sense of its 19th century Russian location is added by an effective musical soundscape, much of which is performed live by the cast when not directly involved in the action. But overall, there’s a certain lack of focus in terms of gender, time and location; in attempting to emphasis the timeless, this production loses too much of the innate power that comes from being actually quite specific.

Reviews by Paul Fisher Cockburn


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The Blurb

In the world of The Gamblers there is no mercy. You play well or you lose everything.

In a new, all-female version of Gogol’s fast-paced comedy, this is a story of women who gamble, hustle, cheat, drink, swear, sing and dance. And never apologise for it.

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