The Major

Fri 2nd – Sat 10th August 2013

reviews

Florence Strickland

at 08:42 on 4th Aug 2013

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‘The Major’ is a reworking of Nikolai Gogol’s ‘The Nose’. Oliver Michell presents his version of the anxiety of social hierarchy in Tsarist Russia. Michell demonstrates Gogol’s original satirisation of this idea. He ridicules the opposition of starvation and royalty, as well as the resulting aspiration in between. Oriel Theatre Company ensured that this spirit of the production was captured. Their performance of the story included masks (notably of noses) and Russian folk music to deliver the roots of the contemporary Russian culture to the centre of Edinburgh.

The spirit of the Burlesque welcomed us into the room. Two singing chorus members intermittently acted as the narrators. Otherwise, the pair played a number of roles with comfortable diversity. The other member of the chorus conducted the puppetry and played the Major’s nose-cum-member of the Russian Imperial Service. The chorus, as well as presenting unique characteristics, also carried the uniform ridicule of the fripperies and whims of society. They honed the key elements of the stock characters they present. As a result, the audience were frequently laughing, engaged by the cast's spirited appeals to them.

The chorus framed the main focus of the action; Major Kovalyov’s thwarted attempts to finally achieve social notoriety and rank within the fashionable classes. The ludicrous episodes in the process include visiting his parents who live down a well - they would be an embarrassment to their son’s ambitious. This ambition was contrasted by the constantly plummeting hopes of his alcohol-dependent servent, Ivan. The actor in this role sometimes sprawled amongst the audience, languishing in his revolting character, drawing accurate levels of repulsion.

The way that the space was used was total genius. A single painted wardrobe provided a room, a carriage- a consistent way of opening and shutting off areas to the audience and characters. The play’s farce as a whole was greatly indebted to this feature, as well as the fact that the cast seemed perfectly comfortable and rehearsed in its use. A few slips on lines here and there were all that could really be faulted in this small-scale play, with large-scale energy.

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James Cetkovski

at 09:08 on 4th Aug 2013

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Near the end of “The Major,” Oliver Michell’s lithe and biting adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s hypnagogic story “The Nose,” I realised I was unconsciously massaging my own snout. I looked around, thinking that perhaps the play had caused the same compulsion in other audience members. Alas, it was I alone. I figured I had better stop, remembering that in the Russian Lit seminar in which I first came across Gogol’s tale, the consensus was that the titular nose was a metaphor for a different protuberant part of the male anatomy. The seminar had read its Freud, it seemed; this Oriel Theatre Company production has read its Freud too.

Brief summary: Protagonist Major Kolyaev, an insufferably pompous and status obsessed civil functionary, has his nose cut off by a drunken servant in the course of a shave. Kolyaev sets off to recover his severed body part and discovers that “Mr. Nose,” in a matter of hours, has risen to a higher rank in the civil service and stolen Kolyaev’s fiancé. The cast has great fun with the only ever-so-slightly buried sexual allusions—“Mr Nose” stands ramrod straight, his only lines commands and declarations; he’s a superb embodiment of testosterone-fueled aggressiveness. Kolyaev, after the crucial severance, simpers and slumps. He has failed his parents, we learn, whose dearest wish was to “let him rise.” Har har.

I really did laugh hard—the luminous part of “The Major” is the wordplay. A substantial portion of its lines are sung, many of them rhyme, and the ubiquitous nose jokes—“nose to the grindstone,” “dancing nose to nose,” & c.—are deftly placed throughout and never cloy. In a late plot turn it’s revealed that “Mr Nose” is working class, a fact we learn through his language choices: “Did you just refer to your mother as Ma? Unironically?” asks his posh betrothed with impeccable comic timing. The interrogation continues: “Napkin or serviette?” “Aitch or haitch?” He chooses “haitch”; that’s it for Mr Nose.

Considering that “The Major” handles Sex and Class, Two of the Big Three Theoretical Categories, its social critique is remarkably graceful and lively. The object is always the comedy rather than the criticism, and the criticism is all the more biting for this. The female characters especially deliver their lines with what used to be called gusto; everything to do with character and language in this play is energetic and propulsive.

The plot takes some time to get up to speed but once the major elements are in place it compels and engrosses. The staging at first seems claustrophobic but at last seems extremely well-organised. But always the acting is assured, the commentary on point, the language fluid, the interpretation keen.

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