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Theatre review A wise fool in bleak times

MARY CONWAY feels the timeliness of Dostoevky’s strange tale of a nihilist who corrupts an imaginary paradise

The Dream of a Ridiculous Man
The Marylebone Theatre, London

LAURENCE BOSWELL’s stage adaptation of Dostoevsky’s short story couldn’t be more timely.

Set, not in its original 19th century Russia but in contemporary London, this new dramatisation testifies to the greatness of the source work, effortlessly crossing a divide of almost 150 years to capture at the deepest level our lives today. 

In our time, we are reminded, hope for a brighter future defeats us, the planet is in freefall, mankind seems intent on self-destruction, governments behave with increasing contempt for the governed, depression and mental illness stalk our young and words of vitriol fill our airwaves. Indeed it’s hard to think of the universe as anything other than a speck of meaningless dust. 

And so it is, for Dostoevsky’s protagonist: a man lost in despair for himself and for the world: a delusional loner, self-confessed oddball, pessimist and depressive for whom life is pointless and hope extinct. 

But then he has a dream… or is it reality? 

In the dream, he is transported to a kind of Eden, a paradise where people love one another… where death carries no fear, and where consciousness transcends and outlasts the insubstantial body. While seeming a bit like sermonising for a spell, the dream’s real power is in its demonstration that we can transform the way we think and approach the world with fresh eyes. We can be shot of self-obsession, dispense with despair and live in harmony together, and this can apply as much to political thought as to religiosity. 

The play is a one-man show, in which Shakespearean titan, Greg Hicks, delivers a performance so immaculate it feels like a theatrical masterclass. In fact the entire show displays a level of theatre-craft that takes it to the top of its game. Hicks brings us a clarity of spoken word that puts to shame many lesser actors, while the fluidity of his movement, impeccably choreographed by Gary Sefton, transfixes us, conveying a kind of authority truly worthy of Dostoevsky. 

Loren Elstein’s design combines with Ben Ormerod’s mystical lighting and Harrison White’s atmospheric music to produce exquisite artistry. They bring us magical cloud formations, while concrete everyday objects swathed in mist transpose what is real and what imagined, until we experience not only the potential of the human mind but the mysteries of the universe and the infinite variety of truth.   

Hicks, working as one with director Boswell, becomes an accessible everyman as he conveys the bitter humour as well as profundity of his situation. And in the end, no simple idyll this, but hard realism as our protagonist explains that he and all of us continuously corrupt this new and wondrous truth with lies and selfishness and greed. 

A parable almost. A sermon maybe. Our future in our hands.

This is not a play. It’s literary rather than dramatic work, even in such skilled hands. But for showing humankind’s infinite capacity for its own salvation, it’s a jewel, and as applicable to our world today as it was to pre-revolutionary Russia.

Runs until April 20. Box Office: 02077237984, marylebonetheatre.com

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