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Dead Souls


Etcetera Theatre

DEAD SOULS at the Etcetera Theatre


Dead Souls

“seventy minutes is simply not enough time to do Dead Souls justice”

This production of Gogol’s Dead Souls, adapted for the stage by Mikhail Bulgakov, and newly translated into English by Illya Khodosh, does not serve the great inventor of the Russian novel well. It is extraordinarily difficult to take a classic novel with a vast panorama of memorable characters, and turn it into a play with only three actors. So one has to admire the gutsiness of a company of recently graduated students from the United States on taking on Gogol, even with Bulgakov’s help. Hamzah Jhaveri, Dominic Sullivan and Nico Taylor, with Leo Egger as director, do their best to pack Gogol’s panorama into a carryon sized presentation suitable for the small stage at the Etcetera Theatre. But seventy minutes is simply not enough time to do Dead Souls justice.

The material for a good drama in Dead Souls is all there. Much like another of Gogol’s classic works, The Government Inspector, there is a con man at the heart of this satirical story. Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov is, like Khalestakov, an insignificant character in his own right. But when Chichikov descends on a small town, it soon becomes apparent that he, like Khalestakov, is just the most convincing con artist among an incredible assembly of con artists and gullible fools. Chichikov’s con gives the story its title, Dead Souls. The “dead souls” refer to the serfs, no longer living, but who are still a tax burden for landowners to whom they were bound. Chichikov visits each landowner, proposing that he buy up the dead souls, and take on the tax burden, as a favor. Chichikov’s plan is to buy up as many dead souls as he can, mortgage them to a bank, and so buy his way into society with an estate with its own (living) serfs. What could possibly go wrong?

In Gogol’s novel, this set up becomes a kind of picaresque journey in which Chichikov visits each landowner in turn, and proposes his swindle. It’s a leisurely trip where we get to know the characters intimately, and where we can take a little break before heading onto the next destination. In the seventy minute, three hander drama presented by Eno River Players and the Yale Bookends, we have no such luxury. Actors Jhaveri, Sullivan and Taylor proceed at a breakneck speed because they have to. There’s also a lot of set design bits and pieces for them to manoeuvre around on stage, and rearrange, while performing. This is distracting, particularly as one has to pay close attention to keep track of which character which actor has just switched into. Jhaveri, for all his versatility, plays all his characters, male and female, as some version of American camp. All that is Russian about them are their names. Nico Taylor’s Chichikov is not camp, but seems meek, apologetic even, in spite of the overreaching con man he is supposed to be. Dominic Sullivan backs up his fellow actors with a smaller number of roles, switching between a British or American accent with impressive, though inexplicable, accuracy. Each character, with the exception of Chichikov, lacks definition, which is a shame, as there are so many opportunities for rich, comic invention in each one. If the cast has time while still in London, I’d recommend a visit to Accidental Death of an Anarchist at the Haymarket, to see how it can be done.

Theatre goers short on time and curious about adaptations of Russian novels may be interested in this production of Dead Souls. It’s always worth making Gogol’s acquaintance. But for those with more time, settling down in a comfortable chair with a good translation of the original novel is highly recommended.

DEAD SOULS at the Etcetera Theatre

Reviewed on 3rd August 2023

by Dominica Plummer,




Recently reviewed at this venue:

Flamenco: Origenes | ★★★★ | August 2023


Dead Souls

Dead Souls

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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!’

Toby Osmond

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.

As I
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.



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