Published in the Guardian Greyscale/Dundee Rep Three stars
NOBODY is what they seem in Nikolai Gogol’s comedy of card sharps and confidence tricksters. The play that set the template for David Mamet’s House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner, not to mention eight series of the BBC’s Hustle, recognises the innate theatricality of the grifter’s art. The pretence of the stage neatly parallels the pretence of the conman. Before long we’re dealing with deceits within deceits within deceits.
That seems to be why Selma Dimitrijevic’s production for Greyscalebegins in a locker room with the six actors getting changed from their everyday clothes into the trousers, braces and jackets of Gogol’s 19th-century gamblers. It also seems to be why they change, in the process, from female to male.
Along with Maxine Peake playing Hamlet in Manchester and Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female Henry IV in London, Dimitrijevic’s production is part of an unofficial autumn assault on theatre’s well-documented male dominance. Valuable corrective it may be, but whether it adds anything to the play, newly translated by Dimitrijevic and Mikhail Durnenkov, is a moot point.
This man’s world of status games, brinkmanship and bravado is neither illuminated nor satirised by the casting. Although the actors make some attempt at male body language, they go only so far and don’t appear to have anything to say about male behaviour. Less aggressive, more accommodating and quicker to smile than your average group of men, they call attention to the pretence without offering any insight in return.
All the same, it’s a fluidly staged production, with a strong ensemble spirit and a lively musicality. Amanda Hadingue proves there’s no one more gullible than a conman as her Iharev goes from self-satisfied trickster to bewildered victim, stitched up by a cool and confident Hannah McPake as Uteshitelny who shows herself master of “social engineering of the highest order”.