How would you react if someone stole your life? That’s the question posed in Laurence Boswell’s new adaptation of Dostoevsky’s 1846 novella The Double.
Mr Goliadkin is an everyman, working in an everyman government office with everyman ambitions. But one day another Mr Goliadkin turns up. He looks exactly the same as the first character but is bolder, sharper and more ruthless. It’s not long before the first Mr Goliadkin has been usurped from his position as a clerk, banished from society because of scandalous rumours and replaced in the affections of the woman he loves. But the brilliance of Dostoevsky’s story – a brilliance that shines through in Boswell’s adaptation – is that the audience is never sure how much of the story is in the protagonist’s mind.
Boswell directs as well as adapts and his production plays on this confusion. Ti Green’s set uses a backdrop framed by painted-on theatrical curtains, actors take the place of furniture, and a narrator steps in and out of the action. It’s as if Boswell is testing how far the audience will suspend its disbelief – or how far it will delude itself. Like Mr Goliadkin.
The complex web of characters is explained elegantly through simple puppets, all operated by the versatile cast: Rob Edwards, Jane Leaney, Nicholas Karimi and Sean Murray. But this charming puppetry becomes something altogether more sinister with Boswell’s portrayal of the doppelgänger.
As Mr Goliadkin (played by Simon Scardifield) is going to sleep, a disembodied wooden arm creeps onto his knee. Another appears on his other side before, finally, a head, eerily reminiscent of his own, appears above him. This scene is made all the more creepy for Jon Nicholls’s excellent sound design.
The Double is undoubtedly haunting. But it’s also very funny. Rob Edwards, as a flamboyant storyteller and then an oblivious co-worker, has meticulous timing. And Scardifield may be portraying a man in extremis, but there are moments of humour. He sneaks into the house of the woman he loves and declares ‘A coward dies a thousand deaths’, while the narrator explains that he’s hiding behind a wardrobe.
In the second half, the production becomes more a piece of storytelling theatre. And although this is perhaps inevitable, as the protagonist becomes increasingly isolated, the evening loses some of its intensity. Still, The Double is a thought-provoking piece of theatre which challenges us to think again about our own perceptions.
To 22 December (01225 448 844; www.theatreroyal.org.uk)