Sunday, 21 April 1996

The 8.16 Vodka Syndrome, April 21, 1996

Adapted by Jim Daly & Grisha Dolgopolov from novel Moskva-Petushki by Venedickt Erofeev
At La Mama at Carlton Courthouse Theatre
8.15 Wed-Sat 6.15 Sun until May 11, 1996
Reviewed by Kate Herbert around April 21, 1996

The 8.16 Vodka Syndrome is 2.5 hours of Russian boozing, delusion and mayhem set on the Moscow to Petushki train. On opening night, Anzac Day, several drunken Anzacs reeled onstage from Drummond Street, to actor, Jim Daly's astonishment and our confusion.

Vodka  is a vigorous, entertaining show, epic in both length and style.  The thirty-odd characters are played by Jim Daly, who has multiple personalities and oodles of energy.

The script was adapted by Daly and Melbourne-based Russian scholar, Grisha Dolgopolov from the novel Moskva-Petushki by Venedickt Erofeev who died in 1990; should we assume from alcoholism, as the lead dipsomaniac bears his name?

Erofeev is a much-quoted  hero of Moscow's intellectual boozers. To quote him: "'Drink more, eat less' is the best protection against hubris and artificial atheism" and "Unrefined vodka replaced Veuve Cliquot. That was the beginning of classlessness."

It is difficult to resist using such impeccable dialogue as, "Women are different - because they have a waist - and they killed Marat with a pen-knife." However, theatre tolerates fewer words than prose and this adaptation has retained too many. The show could be sensational with twenty minutes nipped from both top and tail, making it tighter without losing its rich language and myriad characters.

And they are myriad. The inimical Daly scuttles about the stage, transforming body, voice and face in a split second. The train scene with Erofeev, "Black Moustache", "The Decembrist" and "Old and Young Mitrich" was a tour-de-force of comic timing, characterisation and philosophy. Throughout the play, he reels from misery to joy, delusion to stark sobriety.

Dolgopolov has taken artistic risks, many of which succeed. Nina Danko's  blasted urban landscape design clutters the stage with travellers' detritus, echoing the chaos of Erofeev's alcoholic stupor.  Absurd slides flash onto corrugated iron, depicting Russian images. The lighting, effectively tawdry at moments, at others leaves Daly in frustrating near-darkness.

Live music by Faye and Dan Bendrups supports the action evocatively, although a little too loudly early. Daly's sonorous songs in Brechtian style, were an inspired addition.

One cannot but be fascinated and astounded by the Russian's see-saw affair with both melancholy and ecstasy which seems, in turn, to be married to their continuing obsession with vodka and an ability to write exceptional prose.


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