Camden New Journal

Published: 24 July 2008  

Heads off to a first-rate adaptation of Nabokov

Lion and Unicorn

A LUST for executions performed in public has been out of vogue in Britain since 1868. ­Perhaps that’s what makes Victor Sobchak’s Invitation to a Beheading – based on the novel by Nabokov, and ­performed at The Lion and Unicorn – so delightfully compelling.
The audience is invited to look in at the lonely prison cell of Cincinnatus – a prisoner awaiting death for a crime no one can really define.
He is surrounded by idiotic prison wardens and visited (albeit rarely) by his unfaithful wife and his alcoholic mother. He is denied the last remaining right of a prisoner – to know the day of his death. As per Nabokov, things are very strange indeed.
The play revels in the absurd and the gaudy with the omnipresent prison director and jailer (Avi Nassa and Daren-Luc Kelly) perpetually frustrating Cincinnatus’ attempts at logic.
Nassa’s Rodrig is convincing as a corrupt and sleaze-prone director, though the full sense of his authority is undermined by the constant interruptions from ­Kelly’s Rodin.
They torment and tease Cincinnatus (George Xander) – a man desperate to “feign translucence” in his own biography. His measured speech and considered movement are perfectly pitched to offer a jarring contrast with the dervish of the rest of the cast. His marvellously tarty wife is played by Kathryn Ritchie – a woman who looks like she’s just raided Ann Summers before her credibly wanton ­performance.
At one point, Cincinnatus accuses the people in his cell of being nothing more than “parodies” and this is something which the cast fight hard against, in order not to resort to flat two-­dimensional characters.
The most enigmatic character is that of Pierre (George Sallis) who takes ownership of the stage through his immensely watchable performance.
Like the bizarre game of chess Cincinnatus is forced to play, all rules and logic are left outside the prison walls; and of course, when there are no rules, anything is possible. The play is typically Nabokovian, with director Sobchak clearly channelling ­elements of Beckett and Kafka into the blackly comic production.
Because of this, it does require a certain amount of intellectual involvement from the audience; however, like all the best Nabokovian works, this engagement is vindicated in the final thrilling denouement.

Reviews by Rachel Foster for Theatreworld Internet Magazine

‘Invitation to a Beheading’

Directed by Victor Sobchak

‘Invitation to a beheading’ is a black farcical tragedy inspired by a Nabakov novel. Act Provocateur (theatre group) provides an innovative interpretation of this dark piece.
‘Lion and Unicorn’ is a gritty setting above a public house in Kentish Town. The scene was set as a sparse jail room with nothing but a chair for furniture. (Set design by Richard Skelly and Larissa Schoeler). The grey stones painted on the walls were convincing and helped to build up a chilling atmosphere.
Cincinatus (Andy McQuade) is the anti-hero of the play he is sentenced to death for the crime of being different to others. His jailer, lawyer, mother, wife and the headsman himself, pay visits to Cincinatus in his cell. Each one torments him in their own twisted way.
The acting in this play is of a superior quality, in particular Kyle Phillip as 'Rodion' and Magda Rodrigues-Irving as 'Mother.' Kyle is utterly convincing as the dumb 'Rodion,' who mops the jail floor and wants more than friendship (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) with the prisoner. His facial expressions and mannerisms are truly brilliant and he did the best comic tango I've seen. The other actors were also extremely talented but I think that Magda as 'Mother' was highly convincing. When she stumbled around the stage, lipstick, smeared and empty vodka bottle in hand it was an hilarious sight.
The actors were very aware of each other and this gave the whole play a tremendous stage presence and encapsulated the audience. The audience warmed well to the first night and laughter was abundant.
The burlesque scenes were my favourite, making a wonderful contrast between the dank miserable cell moments. When you least expect it, a fanfare of horns blasts out and the whole cast charges on stage with gaudy costumes and carnival masks.
The script highlights the fact that a group of people can be so perverse in their treatment of violence, when they make a sinister spectacle out of Cincinatus' fate.

Costumes were well thought out with stripy jail outfits and especially like the stripes on the librarians' jumper (nice touch).
Invitation to a beheading is an intense and diverse production, which has been cleverly directed by Victor Sobchak. A vibrant performance that should please any audience. I advise you to go and see it, particularly if you don't know the story, as the ending should surprise you.

   The Beheading 

                  The Lion & Unicorn Theatre

    Trust Me I’m an Executioner

This sparkling play derives from the book ‘Invitation to a Beheading’ by Vladimir Nabokov. It has provoked much analysis and much comparison with Kafka, whom he never read. Written in Nazi Germany and published in 1938, with the war around the corner, it does not seem such a mystery to find some poor sod banged up and awaiting execution for having nothing more than impure thoughts, or ‘gnostic turpitude’ as he called it.

For the piece to work the audience should be as bewildered as the poor sod himself as to why he is being given the treatment a cat gives a mouse. And so we are. Trouble is, the soggy characterisation of George Xander’s victim, Cincinnatus, in this production means that one couldn’t care less. In fact the toying with him by each of the other characters seemed understandable, even quite a good idea! 

Distilling the author’s brilliance in his adaptation, and injecting this cocktail of the theatre of the absurd and theatre of cruelty into his cast, adaptor/director Victor Sobchak has extracted some gorgeous performances from his company. Worryingly, the show opens with a turgid, badly lit, badly spoken Greek Chorus-like opening narration by the whole cast. So it was a revelation to have the play burst into life and energy straight after.

The pace is set from the moment that the prison director, played with a dangerous bonhomie by Avi Nassa, brings the prisoner up to date with his very limited future. In no time his ‘fate-mate’, a prison companion in the person of George Sallis’ compellingly plausible Pierre, takes over his meagre life. Wait for a memorable chess game. In a life of his own creation, Darren-Luc Kelly’s extraordinary prison guard, Rodion, seemed at home in a peculiar brand of insanity. Bethany Thompson’s Attorney, hotly, urgently, desperately tried to get the poor sod to be pleased with his fate, and Kathryn Ritchie’s libidinous, dazzlingly self serving wife was oh so watchable. Lucy Christy’s joyously emotional volcano of a mother captured the style to perfection and Andrea Hooymans’ nymphette, Emmie, was so involved with her sexy little life, one felt it was wrong to watch. As if preserved in aspic, a fleeting, but most beautiful depth of life was given     us by Christian Hogas as the prison librarian. The Bucharest National Academy for Theater showing its credentials.

Some effort has been spent on costume and the impressive sound, but little or no thought has been given to lighting, and certainly not enough to staging. However, when a gem such as this is being born, the precocious child deserves everything it can get. Given the wealth of talent this company showed, it deserves to be fully indulged.

Saul Reichlin


London Correspondent

Review of Invitation To A Beheading

"Funny good or funny bad?" by David Phipps-Davis for remotegoat on 21/07/08

'Invitation to a Beheading' was originally a novel by Russian American author Vladimir Nabokov (of 'Lolita' fame). The novel has often been described as Kafkaesque. Victor Sobchak's stage adaptation could more easily be compared to Becket, Fellini and Brecht, none of which I am a particular fan of.

The action takes place in a prison and relates to the final days of Cincinnatus (an understated performance from George Xander), who is sentenced to death. While confined, he is not told when his execution will occur. Other characters include Rodion the jailer (a surreal but physically compelling Baldrick-esque performance from Daren-Luc Kelly), the director of the prison (Avi Nassa, whose diction leaves a lot to be desired), Cincinnatus' attorney (an unsubtle performance from Bethany Thompson) and fellow prisoner Pierre.

This could possibly be the best piece of theatre I have ever seen. Either that or the worst. I could not tell. Sobchak has adapted the novel into what might be a surrealist farce. The rest of the audience were laughing at least some of the time, but I could not tell if it was supposed to be funny or not. There is a twist at the end which is unclear and confusing, and the bottom line is that I simply didn't care about any of these characters. Maybe that was the intention of the author but any intention was lost on me and I could not wait for the axe to fall.

Russian Seasons

Initation to a Beheading