Monkhead Theatre’s production of Nikolai Gogol’s satire Dead Souls recently played at Theatre N16 to much critical acclaim. We speak to one of its stars, Toby Osmond, about the show and what the future holds for him.
How would you describe Dead Souls? What drew you to this play?
Dead Souls is a dark comedy which has a lot of parallels to be drawn with Chekhov. While Chekhov’s plays see brilliant comedy and societal commentary arise from nothing really happening, Gogol has more of a high energy explosion of action which still amounts to the same end product – nothing really happening. I love Russian literature and haven’t worked on any Gogol before so I was excited to work on this
What has your experience been with experimental theatre? What do you feel it offers to an actor?
Experimental theatre excites me beyond reason. It can (and often does) go horribly wrong, but when it works it increases the relationship we have with a production enormously. Robert Wilson famously uses experimental theatre with no deeper meaning than to increase the experience of the audience. His production of ‘Krapps Last Tape’ at the Barbican in 2015, for me, was a lovely example of this working magnificently.
In our production ‘The Machine’ was treated, in some ways, as the fourth member of the ensemble. Does this mean the other three actors get a bit less of the audiences attention? In a way, maybe, but does it also mean the ensemble as a whole has something different and more exciting to offer the audience?
Dead Souls, despite its dark subject matter, has many moments of humour. Were these difficult to pull off?
As the clown of the piece, most of the laughs were in response to something my character did. Unfortunately I can’t take much credit for this – Chloe Myerson’s script was hilarious from the get go – I would laugh out loud just reading it to myself at home. It’s so heavily adapted you could argue it’s actually new writing rather than an adaptation, though Gogol’s book is also of course very funny in a dark way.
Finally a large portion of the credit needs to be given to Nico
Pimpare for his superb direction. He really bought out the comedy in our Nozdryov, while keeping me truthful to the character.
What was it like performing in such a small space? Do you prefer small venues to larger ones?
Space wise, we didn’t do ourselves any favours by going for a thrust stage and having a sell out run – meaning peoples feet were literally on the front and sides of the stage because the theatre bought more chairs in to seat everyone. Of course that’s a lovely reason to not have much space! The intimacy really gave us an immediate energy to work with, although having a projector to take in to consideration for staging did mean some people would have been blocked from the action for short periods of time. I’d be interested to see how it works in a different sized space, and possibly proscenium, but we’ll see where we transfer.
How collaborative was the process of creating the play?
I felt very lucky in this show as the collaborative process was a joy. We had an entire RnD week after our first showing at the Young Vic
Freshworks night. A lot of creative energy went in to the production and it was great to see how this emerged from the rehearsal process. Chloe was in the room the whole time as the script was evolving right up to two days before opening night. This added to the excitement
somewhat, as the page long closing soliloquy was emailed to me the Sunday afternoon before our Tuesday opening. Nico kept asking me if I was going to be all right with it and I kept saying ‘More, gimme more!’
Were you aware of any parallels between the play and our contemporary society?
Oh yes for sure. In fact there was some concern that the closing soliloquy was a bit too close to spoon feeding the audience these parallels. However we wanted to be open to all sorts of audience, not just the theatre crowd who read Dostoevsky for breakfast.
mentioned in our London Live interview however, I’m the sort who really does appreciate stuff being a bit spelt out! I feel we hit a good tone of being obvious enough for ‘my sort’ while having enough clever stuff for the literati. We made a particular spin on the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008 but mixed this in with the wider financial swindling of investment bankers, and capitalism as an inherently crooked system. We also had a lot of laughs for different tastes in humour.
What do you hope the audience took away from Dead Souls?
As long as the audience are moved in some way, I’m happy. Actually I hope they laugh too. And want to see Monkhead Theatre’s next piece! Also probably some other stuff I’ll think of later.
You’ve also worked in TV and film. Which do you prefer, and why?
Bah! I love them all. Theatre you get to hone your craft through weeks of rehearsals, you have the immediate energy from the audience and you get to dive right in to the body and heart of your character. And sometimes that character will be a well loved classic from Shakespeare, Chekhov or Tennessee Williams. Or often in my case a much despised villain! But whereas Dead Souls sold out a 75 seat fringe theatre for a whole run, when I played Thomas Cromwell, an equally exciting historical character to many of Shakespeare’s dramatis personae, there were a million channel 5 viewers an episode! Which is crazy!
Audience numbers aside, TV and film also have their own delights in my opinion. Lighting, sound and astronomically different budget levels mean some things can be achieved, artistically speaking, in Film and TV which can’t in Theatre. However the opposite is also true. Robert Wilson’s ‘Krapps Last Tape’ would have just been Krapp on TV! But in the theatre it was enthralling and magnificent. An interesting thing about our production was that it used live and pre-recorded video in the piece, as well as sound from ‘The Machine’, the excellent soundtrack, and the microphone.
Do you have any favourite plays? Any characters you’d love to act?
I was lucky enough to play Iago in an adaptation of Othello last year, who would have been my number one choice! I love Sam Shepperd, so something from one of his plays would be great, maybe Slim from Cowboy Mouth. Or another Shakespeare. Or a Chekhov. Lots!
What’s next for you?
Funnily enough someone asked me after the last film I did what screen project I’d like to do next, and I said a film based on one of HP Lovecraft’s horrors. Astoundingly I’m about to start filming on the very talented Tom Paton’s next film ‘Black Site’, which is inspired by, you guessed it, HP Lovecraft. I feel very lucky! Other than that Dead Souls has had an offer to run again, so we’re weighing up what might work best for the project.
Toby was speaking to Alice Gray.
Read Alice’s review of Dead Souls here.