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POSTED: 24 MARCH 2010

The Suicide, by Nikolai Erdman

The Hayloft Project & B Sharp | Belvoir Street Theatre, Surry Hills, Sydney | Until 11 April

Appearing in your underwear in front of others. Speaking in public. Being buried alive. All high up on the list of people’s most common fears ... and actor Gareth Davies does it all in The Hayloft Project/B Sharp production of The Suicide.

Having recently seen Davies in two 2009 B-Sharp productions — The Only Child and A Midsummer Night’s Dream — I could already attest to his total commitment to character and incredible bravery. In both productions he belted around the stage naked — either semi or totally — for some length of time.

So it was no surprise that once again most of his clothes are off, if only — excuse the pun — briefly. His major act of bravery in The Suicide, however, comes from the final 15 minutes or so of the production, in which he is encased in a coffin. I don’t know how he did it.

Despite the gloomy title and the coffin, The Suicide is a rollicking farce, based on Soviet playwright Nikolai Erdman’s 1928 play. Simon Stone has directed a modern version, with the original’s humour and punch brought up to date with references to a certain online auction site, sports equipment manufacturers, and alcopops.

Semyon Semyonovich (Davies) is unemployed, while his wife Maria (Anne-Louise Sarks) brings home the meagre bacon (or in this case, liver sausage). When Maria refuses Semyon’s wish for the leftover sausage as a snack in the middle of the night, he leaves in a huff and Maria assumes the worst — Semyon is going to kill himself.

A bizarre enough premise, but the story becomes even more absurd. An aborted attempt from Semyon to become a successful tuba player and thus redeem himself as the breadwinner sees him pitch further into despair.

As the talk of Semyon’s suicidal predilection spreads through his neighbourhood, the enterprising Aristarch (Johnny Carr) offers him a temptation — choose a cause to sponsor his suicide. The money Semyon earns will support his bereaved family, and a huge farewell party is promised to honour this ultimate sacrifice.

It’s quite incredible to think that the original version was penned more than 80 years ago. The Suicide, as The Hayloft Project has developed it, is modern and sharp. It is liberally (perhaps at times, too liberally) peppered with slapstick and moves at a cracking pace. The actors must be utterly exhausted after a hundred minutes of tearing around and outside the downstairs theatre, changing costumes, and imitating a variety of musical instruments.

If you don’t enjoy silliness and some rather obvious humour, you might find The Suicide a little hard to take at times. At the heart of the chaos, however, is the story of a desperate man who loses sight of what is really important until it is too late.

And that really should be the biggest fear of all.

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