"The stage and characters are shaped neatly and tightly around a coffin in each of the three vignettes."Hannah Taylor

To see a student-written play is a fairly rare treat on the Cambridge theatre scene, and to see one so preoccupied with the macabre humour of velvet and corpses is even more tantalising.

Adapted for the stage from three short stories by Dostoevksy, Chekhov and Gogol by its directors Victor Rees and Alex Tadel, Ghostwritten, this week’s Corpus late show, is entertaining but not without a few creases that need ironing out.

As the play opens, we are welcomed to a ‘tour of St. Petersburg,’ starting beneath a graveyard before moving to an asylum and the streets of the city. The stage and characters are shaped neatly and tightly around a coffin in each of the three vignettes. This unusual piece of stage furniture becomes at once flexible and solid as it is used in interesting and different ways for each story.

“Rees and Tadel have done a really good job of adapting stories for the stage which do not always lend themselves quite so wonderfully to visual representation.”

There is some really nice direction, too, from Rees and Tadel as well as some standout performances. Michelangelo Chini and Will Bicknell-Found are consistently strong in their performances and in their stage presence, particularly Chini’s darkly comic performance as the classic existential protagonist in the final vignette, and Bicknell-Found’s meta-theatrical turn as a mental patient playing the elderly country gentleman archetypal in this literary canon.

On the whole, Rees and Tadel have done a really good job of adapting stories for the stage which do not always lend themselves quite so wonderfully to visual representation, especially in conveying the subjectivity of experience and the unreliability of the senses, which all three of these writers are so concerned with.

The play-within-a-play in The Black Monk was beautifully executed, with wonderful moments of humour in characters acknowledging the artifice and unreliability of storytelling itself, and the nods to Shakespeare and Beckett sit this production firmly within the dramatic canon as well as the canon of oral storytelling.

"The Nose’s stage presence was used a little too often - while it is obviously very visually striking, it took away slightly from its ephemeral and fleeting presence in Gogol’s short story."Johannes Black

Unfortunately, there are a few moments which for me just don’t sit quite right. For example, the prologue is somewhat helpful in setting the scene in St. Petersburg (although its omission could have added to the first vignette’s abstract aesthetic), but the play’s two epilogues feel completely unnecessary, including the unfortunately popular bugbear, ‘it was all a dream.’

But, The Nose’s stage presence was used a little too often – while it is obviously very visually striking, it took away slightly from its ephemeral and fleeting presence in Gogol’s short story, which for me, is what made the original story so funny and prescient.

“Michelangelo Chini and Will Bicknell-Found are consistently strong in their performances and in their stage presence.”

These are a few of an unfortunate number of slightly jarring elements in this play, which one gets the impression might be easily ironed out by slight revision in any subsequent productions. Some elements of the acting, especially by Olly Francis as the Nose in the prologue and epilogue, feel a little carnival-like and oddly incongruous with the genre and content of the rest of the play.

The costume also feels inconsistent in places. The first two stories’ largely representational costume of t-shirts and jeans, with some characters donning extra items of costume to denote aspects of character, sit in slightly odd contrast to the costume of The Nose, with its brightly coloured and far more detailed costumes of varying aesthetic and period. These include two detailed traditional Russian civil servants’ uniforms, and the somewhat bizarre choice of a lime green polo top for a 19th century St. Petersburg journalist.

While the body of this adaption of some of Russia’s most loved stories was an interesting exploration of mortality, the human experience and subjectivity, there are definitely some shoots which need pruning before this can grow into a truly great production

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