Max Hoehn is ambitious. His latest project is to radically transform Alexander Pushkin’s The Queen of Spades and bring it to the Arcola theatre in Hackney.
At the tender age of 22, director Max Hoehn has already built up an enviable CV. Juggling a history degree at Oxford University with theatre commitments, he started his own theatre company, Fusebox Productions, and has already directed at the Arcola Theatre and Edinburgh festival.
Pushkin’s famous text has been traditionally associated with Tchaikovsky’s opera version, but Fusebox’s Queen of Spades will be the first theatrical adaptation of the text outside of Russia. The opera version is still popular today and a week after Hoehn’s production opens at the Arcola theatre in Hackney, Opera North’s touring version will begin at the Barbican centre.
“Its a coincidence that the opera is being staged at the same time as this adaptation” says Hoehn, “The opera is very famous, it has a big budget with lots of resources invested in it, whereas our production is in a studio with three characters, and we are really emphasizing the fantasia of Pushkin.”
The director is keen to present his version as a completely new experience, open to those who have never come across Puskin’s work. “I think someone who enjoys the opera version can enjoy our play, and its focus on the original text, which had a lot more humour. So much of this is our own thing, and I doubt the Arcola’s audience is particularly purist about Pushkin.”
The Queen of Spades is Hoehn’s second production of a classic Russian text, following from The Master and Margarita, an adaptation of a 400-page Soviet-era satire by Mikhail Bulgakov, which was highly acclaimed at the Edinburgh Fringe festival in 2010. Hoehn is keen to spread his love of Russian theatre, and its skill at story-telling.
“Stanislavsky seems to be the legacy of Russian theatre but there were other practitioners who interest me, who look at storytelling. I’m interested in composition rather than Russia’s ultra-realist tradition.”
“I studied avant-garde Russian theatre and the period of revolutionary literature at university. There seems to a long history of adaptation in Russian theatre which really appeals to me.”
Pushkin’s text is set in the 1830s, but Hoehn explains its popularity with modern audiences. “Our adaptation isn’t set in 1837, but that doesn’t really matter. The story is a classic text, and people keep adapting it, because its cynicism is very modern.”
The Queen of Spades is about an army officer named Hermann, who becomes obsessed with unlocking the secret of a card trick, which would make him rich if obtained. The secret lies with an ancient countess, but Hermann has no way of reaching her. He eventually gains access to the house by convincing the countess’s ward, Lisa, that he is in love with her. Once in the house, he finds the countess, and later obtains the secret, which eventually haunts him and leads to his downfall.
Hermann’s greedy pursuit of the card trick makes him an unlikely protagonist, but he is nonetheless an exciting character for the audience to follow, while the most honest character, Liza, is the victim.
Although the plot suggests a vague critique on the dangers of greed, Hoehn says it does not have a clear message, making it a very strange story. “The tale has many parodies and genres within it. It’s very cynical and does provide social commentary, but Pushkin’s never moralistic and you see that through the irony in the story. Also, Pushkin was a big gambler and was very self-aware of it.”
Hoehn’s version plans to elevate the fantastical elements of the original text. “It’s a bizarre story, quite hallucinatory, with ghosts coming to life and macabre elements that give a heightened quality to the storytelling. We wanted to focus on the iconic images of the novel- the old lady rocking in her chair, the young man Hermann behind her desperate for money, and the winking ghost that reappears to him.”
Hoehn hopes to create this trippy, heightened sense of illusions on stage with a simplistic set – a huge, expanded bed and two chairs. “A lot of the action happens on this huge expanded bed, with massive folds in it. It’s a very simple design and quite hard to pull-off.”
Creating fantasy out of simplicity is a challenging feat, and the Arcola’s Queen of Spades will attempt to do it with a cast of three characters. Hoehn is confident he will create the right atmosphere through sound – even through the rhythm of the dialogue, which is in rhyming prose. “The nature of the text causes a rhythm. We push every front to create an experience, through dialogue in verse, lots of sound and non-textual expression which add to the grotesque. It’s a bit of an epic with three people.”
An epic with three people, melodrama through simplicity…Hoehn’s vision of his play offers intriguing juxtapositions. “Who knows what I’ll be working on next?” he ponders. No doubt, it will be something as ambitious if not more, than his current feat.
The Queen of Spades will be on at the Arcola Theatre from October 12 to November 12. Click here for tickets.