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Review: The Dream of a Ridiculous Man (Marylebone Theatre)

Review by Sophie Wilby


Laurence Boswell brings Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1877 short story to the Marylebone Theatre - a stage not unfamiliar with plays of Russian origin. 

Dostoevsky’s The Dream of a Ridiculous Man depicts an unnamed man (Greg Hicks) whose life begins to unravel upon experiencing a nihilistic revelation that nothing matters. This revelation leads to his decision to commit suicide but instead, something miraculous happens. He falls asleep. In his dream, he experiences paradise and he spends the next 75 minutes telling us his story. 

I can’t claim to be an academic on 19th-century Russian literature, so it feels unfair of me to critique the story as somewhat simple and predictable. The notion of a miraculous, dream-like event turning a sad, nihilistic, even suicidal character into an optimist is not an unfamiliar one. It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol feel like easy comparisons when reduced to this basic structure. But though the story wasn’t necessarily groundbreaking, it has left me tying myself up in nihilistic knots - it has certainly left me more reflective than I’ve felt when watching A Christmas Carol (but that may be because it wasn’t a story told by muppets). 

In response to the question ‘why this story?’ Laurence Boswell answers that “to put a story on stage, it ought to be useful in some way”. As he reminds us, like Greg Hick’s unnamed character, there is certainly a lot to feel sad or existential about in today's world and indeed, his modernisation certainly plays on current anxieties like climate change and war. His suggestion, then, is that The Dream of a Ridiculous Man is a story of hope - one man’s triumph over nihilism. For me, however, I struggled to see this hope. 

Dostoevsky’s protagonist reveals that the paradise he witnesses in his dream - one where people live peacefully on an island, in harmony with nature and each other, free from a divisive and hierarchical society - is spoiled by his presence. Likening himself to a germ or a virus, he tells us how a single lie, told by him amid a flirtatious encounter, brought about the downfall of this paradise in an almost biblical fashion. From his one sin grew others - envy, gluttony, lust, and greed, to name but a few. Eventually, he tells us how this paradise collapsed into a society reflective of our own - one which embraces his nihilistic epitaph that “life is a meaningless accident in an indifferent and meaningless universe”. And though he tries to explain to them the error of his ways, he is ignored and shunned until eventually he awakens. 

And of course, he awakes into a reality littered with deep, systemic issues which he now feels compelled to speak against - our reality. Through this play, he is speaking to us to say that at its core, human nature is inherently good, caring, and loving. That the life the islanders lived before his arrival reveals our most basic and natural instinct. 

This, for me, is where my nihilistic knots begin because I fail to see the hope in this tale. For me, it’s almost a tale of how easily corruptible people are, and how irreversible that corruption is. Once they’ve adopted a society like our own, the islanders never revert to their paradisiacal ancestral routes to suggest that we too, may be capable of change. Greg Hink’s character simply tells us that we should change, that his grand takeaway from his experience is that ‘we should love one another as we love ourselves’. And whilst he does acknowledge the cliche of this, he suggests that it is not something which has ever been actioned. But he also never really offers us a suggestion as to how to action it. 

When you consider, too, that Dostoeskvy wrote those words almost 150 years ago and yet they still ring true today, thus suggesting that loving others as we love ourselves has yet to be achieved practically, I again struggle to feel hopeful. In his short story, Dostoeskvy writes that “the chief thing is to love others as oneself, that’s the main thing, and that’s it…and yet it’s just the old truth after all - an old truth a billion times repeated”. So, if those words are as true all those years ago as they are today, then what do we have to be hopeful for? I felt that he was asking us to be hopeful without giving us something to be hopeful for, beyond the fact that if one man can change his disposition, so can we. Yet, if anything, I felt more nihilistic than ever after watching this performance and I am not sure that was the intention of Laurence Boswell because I am uncertain how ‘useful’ that is. 

But that, in itself, is why I am awarding this show 4 stars. Good theatre is not easily forgettable and this show certainly isn’t either. Who knows, maybe it’ll inspire my own nihilistic revolution and you might see me on a street in East London proclaiming that love will conquer all. Maybe I’ll become my own ridiculous woman. 

It’s also a show worthy of this rating because of the incredible performance delivered by Greg Hinks. Commanding a stage as a solo actor is an incredibly difficult task, but one which he embraces masterfully. Blending physicality with easy changes in vocality, he becomes a cast of bit-characters that makes the stage feel almost crowded even though he is the only actor on stage. It would be easy for this to fall into the trap of being over caricatured but his subtle delivery instead creates characters we can easily imagine. It is certainly not a light performance but he successfully conveys the emotional tone of the show throughout and connects well with the audience, also managing to hone in on the moments of humour within Laurence Boswell’s adaptation with solid comedic timing. And my nihilistic knots aside, there certainly is humour to be found in this production which makes it an enjoyable performance - probably more enjoyable than I made it sound through my self-reflection. 

His performance is matched by a design (Loren Elstein), lighting (Ben Ormerod), and sound (Gary Sefton) team working in perfect harmony. Recently, the west end has been littered with repeated uses of screens and projections, some of which were more successful than others. This is an example of it being done well - mostly because it wasn’t overly done. Kept relatively simple, the projections and lighting helped to gently evoke the setting of the story, helping you feel immersed in the scene which was only strengthened by the surround sound throughout. 

As Dostoesky’s protagonist has his soapbox moment on stage, I have perhaps leaned a little too into having my own throughout this review. For me, however, that is a sign of a show that I enjoyed because it left me thinking. This is why it is one I would encourage others to see, if only so they can talk to me about it and probably explain all how I am wrong to fail to see the hope in The Dream of a Ridiculous Man

The Dream of a Ridiculous Man plays at Marylebone Theatre until April 20th

Photos by Mark Senior


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