Not going to lie- this was probably right up there with my least favourite things I’ve seen. Just not my style- too many depressing thoughts. The Director’s note: “Nioukhine outlines a detailed, ridiculous, distressing and absurd portrait of a futile existence”. No thanks, not for me.
Originally posted on The AU Review.
There are three ticking metronomes on stage. “Tick tick tick” they echo around the theatre as the audience files in. Far from keeping any sort of time with each other however, they are irregular and manic. “Tick TICK… tick”. You almost breathe a sigh of relief when Nioukhine, performed by Michel Robin, shuffles on stage to stop the metronomes one by one, as the lights dim and On The Harmful Effects of Tobacco begins.
The production is a new musical take on Chekhov’s original one-act monologue. The monologue, though rarely performed, has been reimagined with music previously- the music playing with this monologue to enhance or agitate our emotions. This production commences with three women on stage and the pianist and violinist treat us to the four movements of Bach’s Sonata No. 1 in B minor. Our soprano stands in as a page-turner until a little later in the act. Nioukhine meanwhile, is shuffling and grumbling across the stage every so often looking out of place. An annoyance. The women look up with agitated faces whenever he shuffles in, disrupting their music.
Eventually the women cease playing and our attention falls on Nioukhine, who begins “Ladies, and, so to say, Gentleman…” and he continues on to explain his presence at this so called charity lecture. He is here to lecture us on the harmful affects of tobacco, a topic which we are rarely exposed to during the length of the monologue. Instead we listen to Nioukhine’s frustration- directed almost entirely on the character of his wife (who we never see). The three women silently look on with irritation at the man’s disjointed speech which continues to digress despite his constant proclamations to “let us not digress”
As he does continues on you begin to feel more and more affected by Nioukhine’s words- “I have become a non entity” he explains, when I drink “I get so happy, and so sad it’s unimaginable”. He describes how he desires to run away in a field and stand like the scarecrow his wife describes him as.
“I want nothing! Nothing but peace. Peace”. But Nioukhine’s “peace” is disrupted by the harsh relentless Berio’s Sequenza VII for violin. The piece is entirely uncomfortable; the violinist dragging her bow across the strings in unwavering severity, stamping to accentuate the enraged sound. It continues, tormenting Nioukhine and the audience. Nioukhine sits in his chair, his eyes closed and his hacking breath can be heard during the brief gaps in continuous piece. The violinst moves behind his chair, her intense stare of loathing baring holes into his back. And Nioukhine sits, his arm falls loosely to his side. Eventually silence returns and once again Nioukhine insists “nothing but peace”, after a moment that was anything but.
It is this moment gives us an almost undesirable insight into the mental state of Nioukhine. The mad unrelenting sound, the harsh tones of the piece speaking of his mental anguish, and we feel it. As it continues the audience around you shuffles in their seat, we are all becoming more and more uneasy. You’re almost ready to beg it to stop- “peace! Please!”
The production’s introduction of music to the monologue is interesting. There is no doubt that it amplifies the feelings of Nioukhine, projecting them further into the audience and extrapolating on the text. And yet there is perhaps a danger in embellishing Chekhov’s work, a playwright who insisted “the stage reflects in itself the quintessence of life, so one must not introduce on it anything that is superfluous”. Is the music superfluous? Surely if it seeks only to enhance the feelings of the play than not?
How the music is viewed may also depend on your familiarity with music and theatre. Berio’s Sequenza VII is a challenging piece to listen to, especially those not familiar with modern classical, but in this instance what better way to symphathise with our character’s discomfort than with something that also makes us uncomfortable? As director Denis Podalydes describes, “Nioukhine outlines a detailed, ridiculous, distressing and absurd portrait of a futile existence”, and we are there to listen to his off-topic (but somehow on-topic) lecture of this futile existence.
Nioukhine’s lecture continues until his unseen wife arrives and Nioukhine brings everything to an abrupt close to shuffle off. The women return to conclude with Bach’s Second Partita for Piano in d minor, and all we see of Nioukhine is his enlarged shadow passing behind the curtain, which stops and shuffles back again.
This production is more than capable of affecting you in some way during the hour as you sit and witness an old man’s inner falling apart. Robin’s performance is incredible to witness, and the spirited performances from Floriane Bonanni on violin, Emmanuelle Swiercz on piano and soprano Muriel Ferraro bring all of the turmoil to life with their talented playing.
We learnt very little on the harmful affects of tobacco, but perhaps a great deal on the harmful affects of a discontented life.