When Gogol's one-act play Gamblers was first staged in 1843, it was as a curtain-raiser to the same author's Marriage, which suggests that it must have been performed pacily. This much cannot be said for Dalia Ibelhauptaite's powerfully cast revival at the Tricycle Theatre, since it manages to drag out the proceedings to an interval-less hour and three-quarters. As presented here, Gogol's black comedy - a sly metaphor for life-as-theatre and a cunning piece of sleight-of-hand - sags with needlessly spelt out significance and is further weighed down by design-ideas that are often more arty than artful.
Focusing on the world of professional card-sharps in provincial Russia, the play has a Jonsonian intrigue-plot. Ikharev (Oleg Menshikov) schemes to swindle a trio of fellow travellers whom he meets at an inn, but his plan is rumbled and instead the four kindred spirits decide to join forces to cheat a starry-eyed, young would-be Hussar out of 200,000 roubles. What Ikharev does not realise until the very end (though an audience would have to be very slow not to twig) is that all the various people who appear (the youth's father; the Titular Councillor they try to bribe, and so on) are conspirators in what Chris Hannan's new translation aptly calls their 'production' against him. This sting only comes to light because one of the plotters discovers that, he, too, has been a victim of it.
More than a faint smell of sulphur is left on the air at the conclusion - largely because of the spooky fact that we know next to nothing of the central tricksters bar what they have fabricated to Ikharev and that, having swindled him of 80,000 roubles, they vanish like a perplexing mirage. The diabolic darkness that underlies the fable is emphasised here by Oleg Sheintsis' design. Instead of setting the play in a room at the inn, he relocates it out in the coach- yard, congesting the stage with a sinister traffic jam of lamp-lit shuttered carriages from whose murky depths the tricksters emerge like so many Mephistopheleses.
Left stranded amidst all these cumbersome vehicles, the production pays the price for its undeniably powerful opening. When it's reported, for example, that an offstage character is preparing his carriage to leave, you are forced to conclude that this coach-yard must itself have a coach-yard. The staging of the card games, too, will not appeal to the literal-minded. Lest anyone run away with the idea that gambling is a spiritually calming activity, the conmen hurl cards about the stage and at one another as though playing Frisbee. And to drive home the fact that, in this obsessive world of men without women, Ikharev's lady-love is his favourite pack of cards, the production laboriously fleshes out this female personification of fickle luck in the shape of a mysterious silent girl (Fuschia Peters). She starts by favouring Ikharev then makes a dramatic switch of allegiance, leaving him a bouquet of black flowers to bury his face in and riding off with the gloating, malevolent winners.
As the top-hatted chief of the conmen, Mark Rylance gives a sublimely funny performance, all American piety interspersed with drawled half-asides that are worthy, in their timing, of the great W C Fields. The fact that he's having to speak a foreign language badly throws out the timing of Menshikov's Ikharev, though. His Esenin to Vanessa Redgrave's Isadora in When She Danced dazzled everyone with its animal magnetism, and he's a man who drips star quality. But his performance here, you often feel, would fit better in Drury Lane than in the intimate Tricycle Theatre.
Tricycle Theatre, London NW6 (071-328 1000)
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