Robert Reid sees the Bloomshed’s The Nose, a contemporary take on Nikolai Gogol’s classic story
There is furious running. Theatreworks is in an almost bare blackbox state and Elizabeth Brennan, James Jackson and Tom Molyneux are running. On the spot. Fierce rictus-like smiles draw back over their faces. They run between scene changes. They run between each other. Jogging, breathless, throughout the story.
They’re runny noses, obviously, as well as runaway noses.
The Bloomshed’s The Nose adapts Nikolai Gogol’s short story of the same name. Gogol’s story is in three parts beginning with the discovery of an errant nose in a freshly sliced loaf of bread. This nose, which belongs to Kovalyov, a hapless Collegiate Assessor with some power and social status according to Peter the Great’s Table of Ranks, wakes to find that during the night his nose has, not only abandoned his face, but gone into society and attained a higher social standing than Kovalyov himself. Thus ensues a surreal “follow that X” story in which Kovalyov encounters a range of satirical character portrayals of pre-Soviet Russian society in the chase to reunite with his peripatetic proboscis.
“My nose. Light of my face,” says Fry in Furutrama’s Episode 12 season 5. It’s hard not to be reminded of Fry’s quest after his own nose in this episode. Similarly, “Appendages of the world unite”, cries the Nose in the Bloomshed’s adaptation and, as with the penis pun-heavy Futurama version, there’s a short metaphorical line to be drawn between the lost nose and the emasculated man.
While Kovalyov and the wider society of Gogol’s Russia were preoccupied with social class and status, the Bloomshed’s Kovalyov is more Australian in his dissembling and more post-modern in his presentation. Each actor shares Kovalyov at some point and takes on the chorus of roles and exposition that dances around him. Presentational, direct address and Poor Theatre approaches make up the rhetorical language of the world. Molyneux’s Kovalyov is charming and belligerent, Jackson’s is guarded and authoritative and Brennan’s is guttural and weighty. Of the three, I’d least like to find myself in a bar fight with Brennan’s Kovalyov.
Molyneux’s Kovalyov, in suit and gold crown, addresses us from the beginning. He tells us of his popularity, the good he will do, the fame he will bring, the wealth he will generate. This young king is also the CEO of Disney, reference to which occurs occasionally throughout the play, though little is made of it. It’s almost a footnote to signal that this Kovalyov is in fact given to great power as here Disney stands for any and all massive global corporations. Kovalyov is the confident mouthpiece of corporate power until his sudden…loss of face. The world of The Nose is built up out of such shorthands and signifiers. Meat pies and stock offerings. Money is business is power is Disney.
Gogol’s Kovalyov simply wakes one morning to find his nose gone with no explanation and returns a few days later as though nothing had happened. the Bloomshed’s Kovalyov instead crosses an angel, a wonderful singlet-wearing angel with a beer gut and fag-end hanging from his mouth, who in broad Australian accent curses this Kovalyov.
“Enjoy your septum”, he growls memorably from the dark.
There is mess everywhere. Gold flitter and discarded props litter the stage. We chase all three Kovalyevs through the growing chaos and a series of absurd encounters: into the church of a raging homophobic priest, to a newspaper advertising office behind a an old man who has lost his dog, along a horse-racing track, to pig-faced surgeons offering backyard nose jobs with noses sourced from god knows where. The Nose itself has become a giant, cumbersome looking prop, worn by the actors to converse with Kovalyov. As in the short story, the dimensions of the nose itself are variable. Sometimes it’s in proportion to a human face, sometimes it’s dressed in human clothes, walking and talking and holding down a job. This Nose, when it speaks, speaks of freedom. This Nose yearns for a life free of the greedy and vain rich white society.
The Bloomshed’s Kovalyov is more than a middling authority with a respectable but not very thrilling administrative position. The Bloomshed’s Kovalyov is the white king, the fabled boy child, praised for his beauty, strength and prowess. Praised for his nose.
There’s a school of thought that takes Gogol’s The Nose at face value – as it were – seeing the escape of the Nose as a commentary on power and snobbishness (what we might call privilege). Gogol’s Kovalyov has his nose in the air, but the Bloomshed’s character insulates himself from interrogation by inferiors with the leaden corporate-speak and weasel words of contemporary Australian politics. He’s a “good bloke” with the characteristically deep voice of the Australian alpha male. Funny how much that voice sounds like it has heartburn right now. It reminds me of former Aussie advertising giant, John Singleton. I’d love to see the Bloomshed give the same treatment to Singo’s These Thoughts are Genuine. (A nasty little guide to marketing and masculinity from ’70s Australia by Singleton – or whichever ghost wrote it for him.)
There is some evidence that Gogol’s The Nose originally resolved itself as a dream but that he cut this explanatory detail in the final edit. “It was all a dream” isn’t very satisfying as an ending, of course, and the lack of it in Gogol’s version opens up the weirder aspects of the story (noses dressed up as people and having conversations), which became a major influence on 20th century surrealist literature. That Kovalyov in the Bloomshed’s Nose is the victim of a passing angel answers the question of how the Nose became detached, which underlines the surreality of the rest of its exploits. Unlike Gogol’s, this Nose really is off and running (I can’t help it, so many nose puns).
It occasionally bothers me that there are a range of subtle variations on an appropriately familiar idiom that are all too often used interchangeably. It means rather different things to “cut off one’s nose TO spite one’s face” or to “cut off one’s nose DESPITE one’s face” or even to “cut off one’s nose IN spite of one’s face.” Kovalyov is reduced by his disfigurement. No longer beautiful, no longer inspiring of trust, no longer useful to society. But what has actually happened to him in this moment of being literally de-faced? Is the loss to spite, despite or in spite of that face?
In the Bloomshed’s production, it’s a little of all three.
The Nose (after Nikolai Gogol) by James Jackson. Created and performed by Elizabeth Brennan, James Jackson and Tom Molyneux. Lighting design by John Collopy. Sound design by Justin Gardam. Dramaturgy by Lindsay Templeton. the Bloomshed at Theatre Works. Bookings
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