December 2018
Author: Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Adaptation to stage: Tom Basden
Directors: Volkan Yosunlu, Mert Fırat
Stage Design: Cansu Cürgen, Avşar Gürpınar, Mete Godollar, Metincan Güzel

'Tom Basden's The Crocodile is a satirical play based on an 1865 short story of the same name by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The play is about a struggling actor (a civil servant in Dostoyevsky's story) who begins to receive the recognition he feels he deserves only after being swallowed whole by a crocodile at the zoo. It was commissioned by Manchester International Festival and first performed as part of the Festival, in a co-production with The Invisible Dot, on 13 July 2015 at the Pavilion Theatre, Manchester.
The play is set in a zoo in St Petersburg in 1865. Ivan Matveich, a jobbing actor in his thirties, is visiting the zoo one afternoon with his best friend, Zack, who attempts to persuade Ivan to abandon the stage for some more worthwhile pursuit. When Ivan is swallowed whole by a crocodile, he at first cries out (from inside the crocodile) for someone to slice the beast open and rescue him... but, when he discovers that his new situation brings him instant celebrity, he comes to see it as smart career move, and sets out to exploit it to the full' (Drama Online, 2019).

The Crocodile is interpreted by DasDas Theatre company for which we have designed the stage. We can classify and justify our design as soft and hard elements. The hard elements are the physical ones on and around the stage, softs elements are the still and animating images projected on the screen.

Hard Elements

The stage is a black box theatre in DasDas’ new venue. Thus, there is no elevated platform or ceiling and walls enclosing the audience’s view. The stage consists of 50x50cm tartan tiles marking a square of 9m x 9m in a space with dimensions of approximately 30 x 10m. All tiles are black except the grey ones at the right and left edges. During the whole play, all four actors are on the stage, but when they enter the grey corridors, it means that they are off stage.

Parallel to the edges placed with one-meter intervals, there are eight hat hangers -portchapeau as we call them-. The hats, designed by Zeynep Bozkaya Pırlanta, are hanged on each portchapeau. When it is his cue, Özgün Aydın who plays eight of the eleven roles takes the one from the portchapeu and enters the stage according to the character. Some of these characters are a zookeeper, owner of the zoo, a police officer, a blind and lame craftsman, a journalist, a Russian entrepreneur. It seems that Tom Basden was inspired by the Looney Toons’ famous animation, Fresh Hare (1942). In this seven and half minute animation, Bugs Bunny and hunter Elmer disguise in different roles every time a different hat falls on their heads. These hat-hangers also can be interpreted as bars of the zoo’s cage.

Considering the portchapeaus are off stage, there are only six rectangular prisms on stage. The largest one is the most critical one, which we call the crocodile box, accompanied by four cubes and another long rectangular prism. These illuminated boxes change in function and meaning in each scene. The first, third and fifth scenes take place in a zoo, for the second and fourth chapter, it is a police station and a restaurant respectively. Actors build different settings with configuring the prisms during the intermissions so that the audience perceives them as a crocodile cage, a bistro, a table for a press conference, a toilet, a bench, and a stage.

The headliner of boxes is, of course, the crocodile box. When Ivan (Erkan Avcı) is eaten by a crocodile -which is supposedly the best thing that happened to him during his entire career- he enters the box through a hole covered with elastic stripes. He occasionally gets out of the box for singing, watching the outside or making a speech to the public but almost during the entire play he stays in the box.

We can say that we are very impressed by the techniques and tactics of staging by Robert Lepage. His using of technology -with a means rather than an end- and the expression he made with basic geometric shapes, transforming to each other, are quite impressive (His Hamlet Collage is played entirely in and around a cube suspended in space just above the ground).

Using self-illuminated prism modules on stage is challenging in every respect both for the stage and the lighting designer (Alev Topal) because the stage ais lit with different lighting arrangements during the whole play. However, we think it is a risk worth taking.  They are building the ambience of the scene individually or in combination in various configurations, similar to Dan Flavin’s lighting installations.

Tom Basden is not only adapting Dostoyevsky's play to stage but also positioning it in a contemporary context with the help of an appropriate degree of abstraction. That is why while we were designing the space, we tried to keep this level of abstraction. The configuration of the prisms in the first scene might remind some of a crocodile or its cage, but we do not aim to make any direct references. We intentionally choose basic geometric shapes and colours of lighting -RGB, red, green, blue- as almost a reminder of Bauhaus’ simplicity. It was important that these elements do not refer to any stylistic or historical context, because the play is set in today.

Soft Elements

Soft elements are still and moving images, projected onto Gauze Screen stretched three by eight meter canvas.

Before the play starts, in order to prepare the audience, there is a 5-10-minute transmission which we call pregame, where Ivan and Zach (Ferit Aktuğ) wandering in the zoo, watching the animals without speaking. During this part, various close-up shots of wild animals at night time dare shown on the screen. Also, during the intermissions, a trailer with night-time shots of different animals’ figures and gestures is being shown.

Last but not least, each scene has different still image almost, in the same manner, Lars von Trier uses still shots of paintings in Breaking the Waves (1996) during the plan transitions but unlikely to him, these images are shown during the scenes, not the transitions. This screen can be seen as a window opening to the world outside from the stage. Here, according to the context of that specific scene, we see different animals grazing, eating, observing the environment. These images were chosen from the BBC documentaries and various animal photographs and edited by Cansu Curgen.

Logic of Design

Throughout the design process, we tried to design a setup that does not come forward too much, does not steal the spotlight. All the soft and hard elements were designed according to the needs and requirements of the actors. While we create an impact of alienation for each setting, we tried to give some hint to the audience to understand the context.

Stage design has its own restricting and liberating aspects. On the one hand, there is no utilitarian concern as in the context of conventional product design. On the other hand, in every stage of design, designers have to be careful about criteria such as technical necessities and demountablility. Moreover, when the stage is synchronized with lighting, sound and eventually acting, an impressive composition begins to emerge.

The stage is open to observation and interpretation even when there are no actors on it. In addition to how the play is performed, what we want is to leave a trace on the audience, an after image likely to the negative image after you stare at an incandescent lamp for a while.