This finely wrought fusion of fiction and realism is an illuminating, enchanting, listening experience. On one level it can be heard as a playful riff on absurdism, on art, by a clever comedian (Tim Key) who harbours an obsession with one book and its author: Gogol’s The Overcoat. And yet on another level it offers a wry and gentle insight into, among other things, the nature of the human condition. Key's tone is intimate and confessional as he attempts to deconstruct the meaning (or meaninglessness) of Gogol’s story. The program wears its structural architecture lightly, combining the element of surprise (why not include an interview with a sports commentator best known for his sheepskin overcoat, in a program ostensibly about a 19th century Russian short story), with humour, subtle allusion, and intriguing interplay and blurring between fiction and fact. Like Gogol’s protagonist in The Overcoat, Tim Key is also tantalisingly unreliable. There’s a gentle warmth and brevity to the humour, so that none of the rich ‘cast’ of interviewees, who walk through Key’s increasingly rollicking mise-en-scene is presented as caricature. The selection and placement of extracts from The Overcoat reveal a deft hand, and they work well to seamlessly build this melding of life and art. It’s probably more comedy than literary feature – and yet its appeal is that it is, skillfully, both of these things. It’s a program which could appeal to those who might otherwise be uninterested in the subjects of writing, Russian history, and the origins of absurdist humour.
Reviewer Michelle Rayner is an award-winning documentary maker and Executive Producer of the History Unit at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio National.