Concert, DVD, Film & Theatre Reviews 17

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The Overcoat


Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol was blessed (some citizens might say) with an extraordinarily prominent proboscis. Reflecting the many Russian proverbs that hang by that appendage (so large it might have been growing for a century) it manifested itself most famously in the eponymous story, yet its counterparts are to be found in many of his works.

But the nose is more than a nose. One needn’t strain too hard to think of another extremity it might be standing in for. A close reading shows the author; his pen is clearly visible. Even after Bill Clinton, a cigar is still sometimes just a cigar but for the 20th century The Nose was the dominant Gogol text, lending itself to a range of critical approaches.

The later story The Overcoat, from under which Russian literature crawled, dominated the 19th century, but there have also been numerous 20th century adaptations, including film versions from America, Britain, France, Italy, and, of course, the Soviet Union. Stagings there have been also, including a balletic version from Nureyev using selections from Shostakovich’s music.

Now there is another, directed by Morris Panych for the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company. Following its success in several Canadian cities, this has been made into a film. For the new medium the structure remained untouched but the style and size of the performances was accentuated. Variously described as a “wordless theatre piece”, a “movement piece” and a “performing arts masterwork”, it’s hard to know quite why it isn’t simply a ballet, as the movement language it uses is little different from some modern works. Again Shostakovich is the posthumous collaborator, and the music comprises the Piano Concertos, the Tenth Symphony’s Allegro, the finale of the Tenth String Quartet, and movements from the first three Ballet Suites, the First Jazz Suite and the Suite for Variety Orchestra.

As this is an adaptation, we shouldn’t expect it to illustrate every moment of Gogol’s text without adding anything, but making Akaky Akakievich (known only as “the Civil Servant”) work in a drafting office overrates him compared to the story, in which he is a copy clerk who becomes quite befuddled when asked to copy a document but to change a few verbs from the first to the third person. Frozen by his fear of life, copying is an escape from reality – when he isn’t oblivious to it. In Gogol, things happen to Akaky, but in this production, though still a victim, he is a more active figure.

We first see him through a grill. Separated from him, we sympathise rather than empathise.

The waltz from the First Jazz Suite ushers us into the strange world of his digs, reminiscent of the darker films of Caro and Jeunet: Delicatessen and La cité des enfants perdus. A mysterious co-renter hides under the kitchen table cutting paper dolls – amusingly, this is the moment to credit the film editor – while Akaky tries to ignore his landlady’s none-too-subtle advances.

Already we have a character beginning to suffer from alienation, and when we see him at work the impression is complete. As he arrives, giant fountain pens descend to form pillars, and other elements of the set are created around our oblivious hero. Like a child, the world only exists for him when he is there, and he has no conception of a world that is unperceived.

The First Piano Concerto is a slightly odd choice for these scenes: its circussy first movement certainly adds to the comedy, but only the finale has the real cruelty that Akaky habitually suffers at the hands of his tormentors. Again a man-child, he is insensible to the romantic interest shown in him by one of his colleagues, though he is in awe of a female boss. There is an erotic moment when she returns the much-mocked shabby coat, but this section, using the concerto’s second movement, seems to be more about Akaky’s painful, half-grasped memories, as mysterious hands move, Nosferatu-like, over the frosted windows. Back at home, his landlady makes another attempt to seduce him while, again through the grill, we watch him repair his coat.

Occasionally interjected still photographs of the characters, visually slightly softer than the narrative’s images, seem to stand apart with not much purpose other than to point out that an adjacent scene features the character(s). But this is akin to a technique used in some early films where entrances were marked by a moment of stillness, sometimes even superimposing the characters’ and actors’ names. And silent cinema is one of the reference points for the production, with techniques such as irises (closing a scene by having blackness overtake it in a shrinking circle – also a favourite way of ending animated films) and revealing a new scene with a circular, clockwise wipe.

The influence of silent comedy is discernible, primarily by way of Chaplin, who was a hero of Kozintsev and Trauberg, makers of a silent-film version of the story. Shostakovich also loved Chaplin, and he may (or may not) have accompanied Kozintsev and Trauberg’s film during his time in the cinema. But there is little evidence of that film’s influence on this production, which certainly doesn’t have its incredible level of fetishisation of the coat.

This brings us to another aspect of the story: sex. It’s hard not to see the coat as a “love-object” for the poor clerk but his fantasies about his female boss seem unlikely and, in the tailors’, he would hardly rub the material of the as-yet-unmade coat against himself so explicitly; it is the actuality of the coat – not its concept – that temporarily changes his character. Unmade, it is still a dream, like so many that he has; completed, it is a delirium-inducing reality.

It’s a difficult thing to bring off: to show the feelings that Akaky has, but doesn’t recognise or cannot act on. Some of his actions are subconscious: drawing his hand along his outstretched tie when his attractive boss walks by, or wincing at the sight of the shears. Meyerhold would have argued that these were the very sorts of actions that showed the truth of the character, but they seem to me overstated – even more so, his visit to the sewing room where a group of men, stripped to the waist frantically pumpon their machines. Unsurprisingly, Akaky misses not only the sexual implication but also the parallel with his own regimented job, rather being pleased, fascinated and empowered that they are working for him.

When the coat is finished, Akaky’s personality changes and there is a marvellous moment when he dances with it to the Second Piano Concerto, giving the uncanny feeling that he has wished it to life, a mirror image of Kovalyov’s fears bringing his nose to life.

And so clothes make the man. At home Akaky lays his coat gently on the bed like a lover. Arriving at work, he doesn’t realise that people are admiring him and thinks that someone has come in behind him, but then he begins to enjoy the attention and eventually the boss invites him to a party, where he indulges in some waltzing, again overlooking his admirer in preference for his admiree. If only he’d spotted the former’s interest, his fate could have been very different.

At this point the production moves farther away from the original. After initially being feted, Akaky is ignored and slips out uncomfortable and unnoticed, aware that it is way past his bedtime. Here he gets lost in a hallucinogenic nighttown. But would Akaky really have the expression of delirium bordering on orgasm when a prostitute removes his precious overcoat to the accompaniment of the finale of the Tenth String Quartet? Though it’s valid to highlight Akaky’s problems with women, surely he would have taken more care of his prized possession.

After a brief and typically unsuccessful visit to the police station, the whole of the original story’s visit to a ‘very important person’ and its final indignity is cut, and Akaky accosts various passers-by hoping to divest them of their overcoats before a fade to his bedroom where a Tarkovskian snow falls. Beside him sits his paper-cutting flatmate, a sleep-death companion echoing his movements.

The fade back to his room and superimpositions of Akaky onto himself leave us with a familiar Gogolian question: where is the line between reality, the bizarre, and complete fantasy – the passing shots of copies of Pravda prompt us further. Certainly the moments before the loss of the overcoat should be filled with Akaky’s beatific reminiscences to heighten the feeling of loss but it’s hard to imagine that even if the nighttown scenes were fantasy they are the sorts of things that would fill his head.

The story’s ironic climax (avoided here) is that when Akaky’s ghost finally gets the very important person’s overcoat his Tod is turned to Verklärung and he disappears. Perhaps he is already dead and the whole thing is a deathbed fantasy? Ambrose Bierce’s An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge is an early example of this conceit, which has been taken up by several films. The problem is that in such cases it is hard to see, even in retrospect, the moment of death: the conventional “revelation” or, in marketing terms, the twist.

Instead we get a different ending. Back in the red-light district, the whore dances deliriously with the overcoat – has its power now infected her? – while we are waltzed into a blue-toned lunatic asylum where Akaky happily accepts a straitjacket as his new overcoat. Has it all been The Diary of a Madman?

Beyond the changes to the story, do the music and images work together, whether by reinforcement or “a sharp contrast”?[1] Avoiding all-too-common arguments over crude one-to-one pictorialism (to the best of our knowledge Shostakovich did not have The Overcoat in mind in composing any of this music) we must judge this “collaboration” in those terms. As well as controlling the pace of the drama, the music sets the mood, offers the chance to synchronise movements to it, and may be raided for post hoc leitmotifs, though it shouldn’t be wedded too closely or exclusively to any of these roles.

In fulfilling these roles, pre-existing music brings difficulties and advantages; indeed the difficulties can be the advantages. Each piece lasts a set period; as Panych admits, “If the music went on longer than the story needed, we were forced to invent business for the characters to flesh out the time.” The question is whether it is flesh or flab. Most of the additions are believable enhancements to the characters, though the more general changes are gratuitous and weaken Gogol’s conception.

As to the emotional structure that the music might give, the director can choose whether to follow or counterpoint it. In his ballet, Nureyev’s mosaic of small pieces from various works enabled him to change the mood very rapidly. The present film’s use of the concertos means that twice, for around twenty minutes, Shostakovich has first say, and the production has to respond to his music, either to echo or counter it. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these are some of the least convincing sections as one piece continues over several scenes or moods in a way that can seem random as it moves in and out of synchronicity of mood and action. The proliferation of waltzes could have been corrected but the main problem is that the music chosen misses the phantasmagoric side of the story, and though it is enjoyable, I left feeling let down on that count.

The acting is of course in no way realistic. The expressionistic sets and make up and exaggerated movements are to be seen as “Gogolian” and, though nothing like what the writer would have known, are convincing. The parodies of “silent film acting” grate a little (like so many ideas about silent cinema, not so much a parody as a travesty!) but they are made to fit in with ideas about biomechanics and suchlike (again unknown to Gogol, but appropriate to the production). And one has to applaud Peter Anderson’s virtuoso performance as Akaky Akakievich, while the rest of the cast etch some memorable characters.

Finally, in a moment that was truly bizarre I finished watching the film and flicked the TV back to monitor, whereupon a character in a film said: “Who is this Gogol guy?” Whatever you may say, these things do happen – rarely, I admit, but they do happen.

[1]S. Eizenshtein, V. Pudovkin, G. Aleksandrov. Statement on Sound. S. M. Eisenstein. Selected Works, Volume 1: Writings 1922-1934. Ed. and trans. Richard Taylor. London: BFI 1988. Pp. 113-4.

A repeat broadcast of The Overcoat airs on CBC Television’s performing arts programme Opening Night at 8:00 p.m. on Thursday, 22 August 2002.


Starring Peter Anderson as Akaky Akakievich, with Manon Beaudoin, Attila Clemann, Judi Closkey, Dean Paul Gibson, Wendy Gorling, Peter Grier, Colin Heath, Jennifer Hill, Jennie Rebecca Hogan, Blair Keyzer, Cyndi Mason, Micki Maunsell, Paul Moniz de Sá, Allan Morgan, Michael P. Northey, Malcolm Scott, Courtenay J. Stevens, Jonathan Sutton, Brahm Taylor, Craig Veroni, Christine Wach, Gordon White, Joel Wirkkunen.

Directed by Morris Panych.

Music by Dmitri Shostakovich, performed by the CBC Radio Orchestra, Mario Bernardi (cond.), Angela Cheng (piano), Jens Lindemann (trumpet). Soundtrack CD reviewed in DSCH 17.

A Principia Production, ©2001, in association with Radio-Canada and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, from the original Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company Stage Production created by Morris Panych and Wendy Gorling, based on the story by Nikolai Gogol.

John Riley