Absurd, grotesque and quite brilliant, The Major is a small comic theatre gem of a decidedly weird kind. A satire on social ambition in 19th century St Petersburg, based upon Nikolai Gogol’s The Nose, this is a sprightly adaptation by the award-winning Oliver Michell. It tells the tale of Kovalyov who, after losing his nose in a bizarre shaving accident, finds that that very nose has not only gained life but has also gained the kind of riches and esteem that Kovalyov could only dream of. And what’s more, he has an eye on Kovalyov’s love Madame Podtotchina.
Such a surreal and distorted world where a man must compete with his own nose for social rank and love is brought to life by this witty and energetic production. An atmospheric narration is delivered by two devious looking Cossacks in the style of Russian folk ballads and the performances are all appropriately over the top. The actors have a constant crazy-eyed look about them and a nervous jerky energy that works well.
The characters are essentially one dimensional as they all desire one and the same thing: to reach the next rung of the social ladder, no matter who they might have to throw off to get there. It is this thinness however that allows for the broadest possible comic spectrum. The joke is precisely that the characters never change simply because people don’t. This fable of greed and getting ahead, despite (or perhaps because of) its absurd plot, remains relevant to this day. If this all makes it sound a bit heavy and preachy, it isn’t. Dark, absurd humour is always in the air, like that haunting Russian music. One particularly funny scene has Kovalyov lost amidst a maze of bureaucratic and bizarre ministries, trying to make some sense of a world that resolutely defies the rules of logic. A scene which almost resembles 1984, if George Orwell had had a sense of humour.
A special mention must also go to the make-up. Each actor wears a hideous, ghoulish nose, all stretched and gnarled, as if in this world the nose were the window to the soul and these souls were far from beautiful. The effect is to isolate the characters in a world at once familiar yet disturbingly different. One thing that is less effective however is the use of a puppet to play an old crone. Although well designed, the actor holding her is often inaudible and placed so far away from the action onstage that she became dwarfed by the other actors and quite boring as a result.
Still, if you fancy a whiff of some dark and absurd theatre, The Major is something well worth sniffing out.