THE Gamblers was first seen in Russia more than 170 years ago yet there’s a fierce and sobering drama for our time in Nikolai Gogol’s tale of three supreme con-artists, their accomplices, and the man they meet at a roadside inn, who turns out to be an arch-practitioner of the same trade.
The Gamblers - Dundee Rep
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Like every heist movie ever made, Gogol’s 90 minute play shows an intense fascination with the twists and turns of a world in which money is the only measure of success, and the ever-more-complex plots and devices used to get it the only source of interest and excitement.
Yet it also hints at a moral universe which exposes the absolute emptiness of this world, its capriciousness, inhumanity and savagery.
So there’s a huge sense of potential in Selma Dimitrijevic’s fascinating new touring production for Greyscale and Dundee Rep, in association with Northern Stage and Stellar Quines, which is set to travel on to Newcastle, Edinburgh and Glasgow after its Dundee run.
Essentially, Dimitrijevic takes the unprecedented step of having all the characters in Gogol’s intensely male card-sharping drama played by women dressed in baggy lounge suits, who aggressively adopt the manners and body language of the male characters they play.
The scene, significantly enough, is a locker-room, and the time – to judge by the muted, anonymous modernism of Oliver Townsend’s set – could be any time from the present day back to the 1920s.
In the end, there’s a sense that the production perhaps fails to pack its full theatrical punch; it often seems adrift somewhere between a naturalism that’s made impossible by its symbolic set and self-conscious cross-dressing, and the kind of fast-moving, high-farce approach most commonly associated with Gogol, which it resolutely refuses to adopt.
Yet for all its occasional uncertainties of tone, there’s something profoundly vivid and unsettling about a drama which rakes some of the most cruel and thrilling aspects of a society based on machismo, and filters them through the presence of six powerful female performers.
Hannah McPake is chillingly impressive as the arch-scamster Utshelnitsy, with Emily Winter as his sidekick Shvohnev, and Emilie Patry as their youngest victim; and by the time Amanda Hadingue, as the solo arch-dealer Iharev, delivers her two chilling final monologues from the perspectives of winner and loser, the audience is left with plenty to think about, to laugh at and to savour.
Seen on 23.10.14
• Dundee Rep today; Tron, Glasgow, 5-8 November; Summerhall, Edinburgh, 11-14 November