A screen of smoke swirling across a sparse set subtly signals the leitmotif of this little known and rarely performed Russian play by Gogol. Indeed, it was unavailable to Western audiences or readers until the late 1990s.
A delightfully imaginative pre-action set, which appears to be a darkened women’s gym changing room, is transformed into a provincial Russian inn. This seemingly impossible task is beautifully choreographed as the all-female cast of the Greyscale Company changes into men’s clothes and the set becomes RUSSIA! Background music, also provided by the actors, is distinctively Russian in flavour and the humming of the Volga Boat Song is unmistakeable. The dim lighting certainly seems to evoke nineteenth century Russia, as we in the West have come to understand it through the novels and stories of Dostoevsky and Pushkin.
Here, character development is of relatively little importance to the plot. Reminiscent of the plays of eighteenth century French playwright Molière, social commentary and character stylisation runs through this comedy of mistaken – or, should one say hidden – identity, where no-one is what he appears to be. Card-sharps all: who will win at the game of grand fraud? The cast is well-balanced, keeping the audience engaged with a complex build-up of sting and counter-sting. Perhaps Amanda Hadingue, as Ikharev, could be said to almost give the game away for the audience a little too early in the action, but she quickly recovers and transports them into a world where deception is the only point of an otherwise meaningless life.
Especially enjoyable are the stylised, almost balletic, card-games, punctuated by accordion music – a minor key for losers, a major key for winners. Passing rhythmically from game to game, the actors move in perfect synchrony as huge sums of money change hands in cavalier fashion. The audience holds its breath. Equally entertaining and wonderfully well-balanced is the scene with Zamukhryshkin, the bank-clerk, played by Zoe Lambert, as he pockets bribe after bribe, apparently in all innocence. The audience is as much in the dark as Ikharev, and we simply enjoy his outrageous claims about the financial machinations of the bank and the plausible promises of the other characters. More than a hint of gangland threat and street-wise blagging weaves its way back and forth through the action. The actors hold the stage well, extract the maximum from characters who might otherwise have seemed confusingly similar.
A slight piece, from a playwright who had a literary career of less than ten years? Possibly. One dimensional characters? Yes. Worth watching however? Definitely. Comic scenes, rich with irony, are played with an engaging delicacy and precision. The producer, Katie Catling, has adhered closely to the original translation so as to reflect the precise details of the twists of the plot. However the significance of the Russian names, puns which relate to sleights-of-hand at a card table, will be lost on a non-Russian speaking audience.Oliver Townsend’s set is sparse, the lighting dim, brightening as the devilish scam is exposed. Resembling a school assembly hall stage at times, it serves well as a frame on which to hang the dog-eat-dog antics of this highly plausible gang of nineteenth century card sharps.
An all-female cast performing what was originally a completely male-centred piece works well – human failings and frailty are, of course, universal. In The Gamblers there is no moral superiority, only superior cunning and intelligence. What seems to be honour among thieves turns out to be … well, it would be inappropriate to spoil the pleasure of future audiences by revealing the dénouement here.