How do you make a play for $1500? According to director Constantine Costi, you start off with a novel by 19th century Ukrainian-Russian writer Nikolai Gogol and see what happens from there.
“The world that Gogol presents is really vulgar and grubby and so we're going for low fi. The set is a world of paper and cardboard which has been left in the rain and then dried and then wet again.”
Telling the story of a doomed protagonist, who in an attempt to better himself loses all that he has, Costi and his team have been delving into the depths of Tsarist bureaucracy for this show at Belvoir’s downstairs theatre.
To get into the headspace of the original novel, Costi began with everything Gogol has ever written and then reading historical accounts of the Russian state.
“Once I'm submerged in this sea of research, it's about picking out the things that I think will contribute to the best theatrical experience.”
Choosing what to include in this production is as much about what to exclude. The third production in Belvoir’s 25A season, where plays have to be staged for under $1500, Costi has sought to get to the essentials of what may be the most overwrought current genre of performance, the musical.
“I went in to 25A with a mission of really showing an audience that musicals don't have to be big scale and all of the grandness of the emotions. Everything that you expect to get from a musical can be there with a three-piece band.”
With his sister Rosmarie in charge of the music, the Costi team found an affinity between Gogol’s adoption of the Ukrainian folk tradition of the skaz and the music of the jazz music of the 1920s and 30s, when the play is set.
“A narrator will take you on this journey, but suddenly you'll go down these irrelevant side streets and then up a ladder, and then you'll slide down a slippery dip and, and you're only going to the shops but you take the most circuitous way to get there,” said Costi of Gogol’s writing style.
Incorporating the twists of turns of the narrative into the improvisational structure of jazz was a natural fit, and one that dovetailed with Costi’s approach to the production as a whole.
Previous productions that Costi has directed have ranged from the opera La Traviata, staged by Opera Australia, and the immersive performance Visiting Hours, which was part of Vivid in 2016, and returned to the Kings Cross Hotel as part of KXT’s 2018 season. Bridging these vast gulfs in terms of style or genre of performance is Constantine’s approach to directing.
“One thing that I've really learnt, whether it was staging an opera at the National Centre of Performing Art at Beijing or tiny things in warehouses in Sydney is that if a gesture or action is truthful, that transcends any form that you're working in or any sense of scale.”
Returning to Belvoir, Costi hopes that it is these gestures of truth that will connect current Sydney audiences to the Kafka-esque nightmare that The Overcoat promises.
“I think people can identify with being swallowed in paperwork,” muses Costi. “The politics of the office are kind of strangely eternal.”
The Overcoat runs at Belvoir from November 14 – December 1. Find out more and pick up tickets here: https://belvoir.com.au/25a/the-overcoat/