Sometimes a production tries way too hard. And often, when a production is so focused on getting up in your face, it achieves little else. And that, I fear, is what has happened with The Suicide at National Theatre.
This is supposed to be a fresh, dynamic reinterpretation of Nikiolai Erdman’s classic satire. Originally written 100 years ago, this adaptation from Suhayla El-Bushra rips it from its historical setting and drops it straight into contemporary Britain.
Good, so far.
Sam Dessai (Javone Prince) is a man without a purpose. He can’t get a job, he lives with his mother-in-law, constantly getting under her feet, and Maya (Rebecca Scroggs), his partner, is running out of patience. It’s all a recipe for a depressed, possibly suicidal man. Only Sam isn’t suicidal – he’s just fed up. But a series of misunderstandings lead all those around him , from his family and friends, to neighbours in the housing estate where he lives, to dive into manic hysteria on their incorrect assumption that Sam is about to top himself.
And this is where the satire is supposed to kick in. For instead of those around him intervening to ensure such a dreadful event doesn’t occur, all (except his partner) decide it would be a brilliant idea if Sam actually did top himself – and so they actively start encouraging him to do so.
Packaging it all up as a way for Sam to take control, take ownership of his bad situation, and leave on his terms – highlighting all of society’s ills along the way – the vultures dive in…
Activists flock to Sam, convincing him that his suicide would be a powerful statement on ‘Austerity Britain’ and push ideas on the best method to get as much attention as possible. There’s also the ex-girlfriend thinking that Sam could make it seem as if he was dying for her, you know, so she could make her current beau jealous. Indie filmmakers think it could propel Sam into post-death stardom, local social workers and politicians think they could twist it all to serve their own ends… Even local café owners think it’s a great idea as a televised death might, you know, boost flagging sales.
So suddenly Sam has a purpose – but only if he kills himself.
This could have been smart. It could have been clever. But instead the production is almost swallowed whole by tired, dangerous clichés of women and the working classes.
The hooded teenagers who loiter in Sam’s housing estate show all the stereotypes of ‘yoof’ today with little nuance. They talk like Vicky Pollard and are all up in your face proud of their sex vids. All stupid, and all superficial. Then we’re all supposed to have a good laugh at Sam’s mother-in-law because, you know, she’s old, overweight and has a sex drive. Because apparently that kind of crap is still funny. And if that’s not bad enough, we have a woman running the café who’s some kind of hysterical irrational oddball, and they’ve even wheeled out those tired clichés of the legions of ‘slutty’ female groupies that surround any wannabe rapper and filmmaker trying to make a mint out of Sam’s hoped-for death.
I’m so tired of these clichés. They are so depressing and offensive. And considering this production opened the same week as Boy at the Almeida, which was right at the other end of the scale in its depiction of ‘Austerity Britain, it really shows up how tired these stereotypes are. And their danger in perpetuating prejudices.
The production design from Ben Stones could be seen as bright and dazzling – plenty of digital projections and a witty mock-viral You-Tube video. But regular theatre-goers will have seen similar (and better) use of video design in 1927 Productions, most notably Golem. And that You-Tube video? Already done in Great Britain. And, again, done better there.
So, with all the above, what exactly does The Suicide bring to the table that works? Well, director Nadia Fall certainly keeps up all the pace necessary for a farce – it’s almost hectic. And Javone Prince is great in the lead role, giving a wonderfully exhausted performance of a man overwhelmed with futility and rapidly losing the will to fight. It’s a shame he’s not given more to work with – or given a better production to show his talents – as his easy charisma is charming.
Sadly, that this show is perpetuating these stereotypes for laughs didn’t seem to bother many in the audience. There were plenty laughing along. But, that aside, it was noticeable that there was a difference from the broadly white, middle-class demographic that you come to expect in theatre (sadly), and especially the NT. That the lure of Javone Prince may have something to do with this, I don’t doubt. And their comments on social media seem to show that they loved this fresh, dynamic show that they hadn’t expected in a theatre.
It’s a reminder that though some will have seen these production gimmicks before, many haven’t. And if this, alone, gets these kids back in a theatre for more, The Suicide will have achieved something. What a shame it didn’t achieve that though on the back of an exciting production that didn’t offend, condescend and patronise society in the process.
National Theatre, London to June 25, 2016
Photo credit: Johan Persson
1. Javone Prince (Sam) Rebecca Scroggs (Maya).
2. A scene from The Suicide.
3. A scene from The Suicide.