What’s missing from the Tom Swift’s new adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s mesmerically absurd short story, The Nose ? It isn’t the status-hungry civil servant Kovalyov, who is still there somewhere under Aongus Óg McAnally’s thick layer of white make-up and hair dye. Nor is it the febrile imagination of the original, in which
Kovalyov’s nose mysteriously departs his face and is discovered first in a bread roll, then walking the streets of St Petersburg in the uniform of a State Councillor.
No, the strange absence in Performance Corporation’s handsome but muddled production is The Nose itself, a schnoz so prominent in Gogol’s fiction that it engages in conversation, fakes its own passport and even goes on the run. Here, though, the title character is largely an invisible presence, signified by chasing lights.
It’s a disappointing omission, partly because there is precious little in the original to omit, but mainly because if any theatre company could get a talking nose onstage, it’s the dependably adventurous Performance Corporation. Sadly, without such animation, Swift and director Jo Mangan have further difficulties in fleshing out The Nose.
Where Swift has previously compressed Voltaire’s Candide into a wild ride of playful invention for the company, this literary adaptation seems to stretch Gogol thin. The ludic conceit is neatly embellished with some good contemporary gags (and every conceivable pun) but suffers from an unusually slack pace and an unsuitably conventional narrative structure. Major Kovalyov is now a low-status official on the make, contending with a senile father (Alan Howley) and juggling two prospective wives – the penurious but virtuous Olga (Lisa Lambe) and the rich but monstrous Katerina (a ferociously funny creation from the excellent Conan Sweeney). He needs that nose back in order to attend the Civil Servants’ Ball.
Beyond the Cinderella riff, Mangan’s production is a cocktail of allusions.
Dream sequences performed between the warped mirrors and tapered ladder of Ciaran Bagnall’s traverse set suggest a monochrome Wonderland, while Kevin Treacy’s ominous splinters of light seem determined to inject some Kafka into the mix. Fluctuating between prolonged comic exchanges and more effective dance sequences, the production never finds a centre. Tellingly, one bravura scene has Lisa Lambe returning as a TV news presenter, archly sending up empty media conventions, but the words are self-defeating: the story so far, she reports, is “a farce or a satire on something or other”.
Gogol himself is similarly equivocal (“There is much that is improbable in it,” his narrator dismisses). But while the production makes acerbic swipes at property, status, corruption and power, ultimately it doesn’t seem to have sniffed out the meaning either. Settling instead for an ending of pure sentimentality, its pat resolution suggests this gleeful effort to hunt for the elusive significance of Gogol’s fable has finally lost the scent. PETER CRAWLEY