The pseudonymous M Agayev published Novel With Cocaine in the Thirties; adaptor Deirdra Morris sees in it a relevance to the contemporary spiritual and social malaise that has lately been exercising our commentators. For Agayev was concerned less with his protagonist's physical dissolution in itself than as an emblem of the disintegration both of a generation and of an entire society – Russia on the cusp of the 1917 revolutions.
Vadim, a poor but able student, finds refuge from the mundane in revelry with his better-off friends and in a series of brutal sexual encounters; his mother funds these sprees (unknown to him) by prostitution. The class Jeremiah is frequently on hand to denounce both this sybaritism and the butchery of the Great War; he wears little round spectacles, and so is plainly destined to become a leading Bolshevik.
Indeed, at times the play could be unkindly dismissed as a dope fiend's Doctor Zhivago: boy meets girl (and violates her), boy loses girl, boy finds girl again... but now she is his friends' cocaine pusher, taking revengeful pleasure in giving Vadim his first snort on the house. The second act plots his addiction from the intense initial experience, through the stoned inability to communicate on an ordinary level, to theft, squalor and eventual death.
Edward Rawle-Hicks is a stolid but alert Vadim; his stocky body seems as bewildered as his mind by the highs and lows of the white powder. He copes well with lumps of undigested author's voice which, try as she might to contextualise them in dialogue or reminiscence, Morris cannot disguise. But the figures around Vadim seldom grow more substantial than in the adroit episodes of shadowplay which punctuate the scenes. Paul Aves's degenerate count is a Dostoevskian cousin to Wilde's Algy Moncrieff; Karen Ford as Sonya (the married woman Vadim cannot love as she requires) appears too seldom to be fleshed out, and committed playing from the rest of the company fails to transcend their characters' peripheral nature.
Director Michael Walling's ambitious staging clearly aims to address a universal spiritual crisis (we know that mute street-sweeper's a symbol, for all that his function is unexplained), but it faces the twin obstacles that sometimes agonies sound unavoidably trite ("What's happening to me... why am I living this way?"), and that the tale's specifically Russian consciousness pervades to its very marrow. Stage One's production, though skilful and intelligent, only meets around half the excessive number of goals it sets itself.
Written for the London Evening Standard.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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