The Nose: The absurdity of status anxiety

It’s preposterous.

There’s a nose running around on it’s own, not only pretending to be human, but doing a better job of it than its owner. It dresses better, it goes to better parties, has a better job, in short, has more status than the man behind the face it left.

This is the premise behind Nikolai Gogol’s short story The Nose. Written almost 200 years ago, way before the absurdists came into being, Gogol’s absurd story is a satirical comment on people’s obsession with status at the expense of human connection, of shallow relationships and empty achievements.

While we may have different ambitions to the Russians of 1836, status anxiety remains a common affliction.

The acclaimed Margot Wood, who founded Anex Theatre Productions in Cape Town 11 years ago, has brought Kit Goldstein Grant’s musical version of The Nose across from New York to premiere on a South African stage at the National Arts Festival.

Wood, who has directed more than 40 productions in Cape Town and at numerous festivals, says she saw the musical in New York earlier this year. Wanting to stage it here, she started corresponding with Goldstein Grant, who provided the rights to the show.

“It’s written for about five or six instruments,” says Wood, but putting them all on stage would be impossible at the festival Fringe, so it has been slimmed down to just the piano, which Oxford graduate Peter Lewis plays on stage.

He accompanies 11 characters in all, played by a cast of six.

David Wilke and Hilton Andries play in the South African premiere of Kit Goldstein Grant’s musical The Nose at the National Arts Festival.

Other than the Nose and it’s owner, there are a host of characters it encounters, including a rich woman he courts for her money, and a corrupt policeman. They are played by David Wilke, Marzanne Kriek, Hilton Andries, Simthembile Gobeni, Jared Blake and Dawid Fourie.

Although originally written as a family musical and situated in the Family Fare section of the festival programme, it’s not actually children’s theatre, says Wood. Rather, it’s adult theatre children can watch.

“It’s a little frustrating because many people who might be interested, especially music people, are looking over it because of where it’s situated in the programme. It’s not a kiddies show,” says Wood.

She believes people in the music world particularly are missing out if they skip over the Family Fare section, as the score is complex and uses elements of Jazz as in parts it acts in counterpoint to the action and offers a seperate ‘voice’.

“It’s definitely something for music lovers.”

She says Lewis, who comes from a jazz and classical background, really enjoys the score. “It’s not your typical lyrical accompaniment.”

Children do, however, enjoy the fun of seeing a nose being chased around the stage, while adults get a lot more out of it.

“There’s a lot of word play, it’s very witty. Some of it is hysterical.

“I loved the process of directing it. We started by focussing on the music (directed by Zena Wood), we had intense music sessions before going into rehearsals.

Production manager Alecia Daniels said everyone who has seen it so far says they’ve never seen anything like it.

“It’s very different.”

Daniels said the story of a civil servant who fails to improve his position in society, despite trying to do all the ‘right things’, including wooing a rich older woman for her money, resonates with people.

“It’s social commentary, there’s bribery going on, and the civil servant turns nasty to his servant when he can’t achieve what he wants.

“It’s about what ambition can do to people.

“There’s a lesson in self-acceptance,” says Wood. “Before his nose ets back on, he come to terms with not needing it, so there is a moral, and kids pick up on that, while older audiences will laugh at things like the corrupt police chief and references to the fact that the newspapers don’t lie.”

The venue for The Nose, which is Masonic Back, has another adapted Gogol script, Dangled, playing in Masonic Front. The two plays are often scheduled for the same time so there’s a bit of a Gogol fest going on at Masonic.

Wood, whose Anex Theatre Productions is a boon for actors who have trained outside of official institutions, has brought acclaimed shoes to festival in years past, including a fantastic double bill of Samuel Beckett’s challenging Play and Happy Days.

Anex Theatre has also toured to the Fugard Festival, winning Best Production for People Are Living There and The Captain’s Tiger in 2010 and 2011 respectively.

She’s a great believer in the value of the National Arts Festival as showcase and training ground for young actors, which is why she’s brought such a large cast to Fringe.

“They can walk away and say I’ve been in a Grahamstown production, it counts for something. If I see it in a CV it tells me something about their commitment, hard work and perseverance.”

The Nose is on at the National Arts Festival until Friday 7 July. Book here.

  • This content is sponsored by Anex Theatre Productions.

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