Fyoder Dostoyevsky’s short story The Crocodile was made into a hilarious play for this year’s Manchester International Festival. An atypical story for the novelist of Crime and Punishment, the bizarre comedy involves a civil servant named Ivan Matveich who is swallowed up by a crocodile and continues performing his duties from inside the belly of the beast. For this adaptation, playwright Tom Basden stretches the 10 page story into a 90 minute play with themes which are startlingly relevant to a 21st century audience.
Ned Bennett’s directing is minimalist yet dynamic. Situated inside the intimate, tent-shaped Pavilion Theatre in Manchester’s Albert Square, the actors perform along a narrow promenade, with the audience seated at opposite ends of the room. It opens with a bang as Ivan (Ciaran Owens) and his friend Zack (Simon Bird) burst into the ‘zoo’, where the audience substitutes for the animals. Ivan, here re-written from a civil servant into a failing actor, pompously struts across the stage while his level-headed friend tries to persuade him to consider a more profitable career. During Ivan’s showing off, he accidentally gets eaten by a crocodile – here, depicted by a piano.
Basden – who also wrote episodes of the British sitcoms Peep Show and Fresh Meat – does not tone town the mania as the play progresses. Ivan chooses to stay inside the crocodile when his predicament results in the kind of public adoration and fame he failed to achieve as an actor. Marek Larwood also plays numerous roles, each one stranger than the last, from an irate zookeeper to the tsar of Russia himself. A particular highlight has Larwood playing a police officer, who Zack informs of Ivan’s accident. The officer’s reasoning for inaction – that they cannot cut open the crocodile to set Ivan free because the reptile is someone’s private property – is delightfully Kafkaesque in its absurdity.
The story, which was written in 1865, at the height of Emperor Alexander II’s liberal reforms, satirises the activists and intellectuals that wanted Tsarist Russia to appropriate even more radical and westernised ideals. Although Basden’s play is set during the same era, it uses the end of feudalism to comment on what the audience would understand as modern day capitalism. Ivan uses his newfound popularity to expound revolutionary rhetoric, which is both comical and familiar to anyone who has encountered a non-committal Marxist. In a centrepiece scene, Ivan delivers an allegory of capitalism featuring all the animals in the zoo. When the populace mistakes his monologue as pro-serfdom, for condescendingly comparing the newly freed slaves to animals, they protest against the ‘Croc Monsieur’.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky never finished his short story, which ends with Ivan trapped still inside the crocodile and his friends unable to help him. The only problem with Tom Basden’s adaptation is he writes a new ending to give The Crocodile a greater sense of closure, but there is still a sense that things are left unresolved. Whereas Dostoyevsky’s version ends on a dark note as Ivan is to undergo a divorce, Basden’s play concludes with Ivan proposing to his former ex-girlfriend Anya (Emma Sidi) and is treated with a personal visit by the tsar of Russia. Zack, initially the play’s sole voice of reason, is forgotten about as his protestations are lost amidst the frenzy of Ivan’s media circus.
The Crocodile was shown from 14 – 19 July, at the Pavilion Theatre, Manchester.
For more information, visit www.mif.co.uk
1. The Crocodile by Tom Basden. Directed by Ned Bennett. Co-Produced by Manchester International Festival and The Invisible Dot Ltd. Copyright Jonathan Keenan.