Chekhov’s First Play
Battersea Arts Centre, 5th November 2018
Some venerable theatre grandees have had a crack a knocking Anton Chekhov’s first play into shape. The venerable Lev Dodin and The Maly Theatre presented a version based on Chekhov’s own text, albeit with nine characters chopped out and a jazz band inserted, which got it down to four hours from Chekhov’s original five hours plus. Based on the Maly Theatre’s latest visit to London I would imagine that was still something of a trial. (Life and Fate at the Theatre Royal Haymarket review ***). As it happens AC wrote it in 1878, aged 19, for Russian acting superstar Maria Yermolova, diva of the Maly Theatre, but she, not unreasonably, rejected it given its rambling nature and it didn’t get published until 1923.
Chekhov obsessive Michael Frayn conjured up an adaptation in 1984, entitled Wild Honey which has had a few work-outs including at the Hampstead Theatre last year. David Hare similarly produced an adaptation for the Almeida in 2001 and it was this text, Platonov, which formed part of the Young Chekhov trilogy alongside Ivanov, AC’s first “proper” full length play, and The Seagull. the first of the four classics, in the Chichester Festival Theatre production of 2015 which then transferred to the National Theatre.
And it was this, and only this of the three, that I saw, in the spirit of curiosity, in 2016. There was a lot to like, especially in the performances of James McArdle as our eponymous Hamletian hero and Nina Sosanya’s Anna and Olivia Vinall’s Sofya who play his two main love interests, as well as, Jonathan Kent’s keen direction. But I can’t say I was bowled over. This is in part might reflect the fact that I didn’t get to experience the transition towards the multifaceted tragi-comedy of The Seagull via the ripe drama of Ivanov. It might also be that, even stripped down, Platonov in this version is just a bit samey. Our schoolteacher has charisma for sure, a worldly man trapped in a less than worldly place, who thinks a great deal and has the wit and looks to take on his babe magnet mantle. But he is also a bit of a dick, drinks too much and probably deserves what he gets at the hands of Sofya. All the material and characters which populated AC’s later world are present, but not necessarily correct.
This then is the play which Irish company Dead Centre have chosen to present in Chekhov’s last play. Only they have got it down to 90 minutes. And I think I can safely say that AC’s role as one of the daddy’s of naturalism was not in their playbook. This instead is a wild deconstruction, not just of Chekhov, but also of theatre and its practices and, probably, the pursuit of “meaning”. Russians like to talk. So do the Irish. And both are pretty good with theatre suffused with meaning and verging on the absurd.
The audience is presented with headphones on seating which the director of “Chekhov’s First Play”, Bush Moukarzel, (the actual director alongside Ben Kidd), explains in a prologue, whilst toting a gun, will allow him to comment on the unfolding “action”, and the thematic sub-texts, as our assorted melancholic Russians, sans Platonov himself, take to the stage. Turns out the anhedonic Mr Moukarzel is not happy with the play or the performers though and proceeds to drily tell us so. This comic parody of Chekhov, via a disillusioned auteur, is what I had expected when I signed up and what I had sold to the Captain who had gamely agreed to accompany me.
It didn’t stop there though. Whilst there was plenty to chuckle at in the AC take-down, Dead Centre had, in fact, only just got started. When the director exits, permanently, the show really lets rip, taking potshots not just at Chekhov but at all manner of theatrical conventions, and the cast, and the story, bleeds into the present, at one point referencing the impact of the financial crisis in Ireland and ordering in a Chinese take-away. Platonov, the focus of the “characters” hopes and dreams, finally puts in an appearance, but in a way you least expect, but which itself proves a masterstroke. A wrecking ball, literally, swings in, to demolish the “estate’ to the tune of young Ms Cyrus. The rich landowner turns to manual labour. A doctor knows nothing about medicine. The heiress’s blood is blue. Et cetera, et cetera,
Now I can’t pretend that I fully grasped all of the references and all of the ideas Dead Centre were presenting. No matter. there were enough slack-jawed, WTF moments to keep me transfixed and enough playful returns to the obsessions of AC’s own characters to keep me guessing. I reckon that this, like much devised theatre, might have made more “sense” to the creators than the audience, but wild invention goes a long way here. The Captain, who is the very definition of phlegmatic, professed to enjoy it, and, I suspect, was inwardly chiding me for trying too hard to work out what was “going on”.
Andrew Clancey’s unravelling set, and the sound, lighting, choreography and effects of Jimmy Eadie, Kevin Gleeson, Stephen Dodd, Liv O’Donoghoe and Grace O’Hara, alongside the fully committed cast of Andrew Bennett, Tara Egan-Langley, Clara Simpson, Dylan Tighe, Breffni Holahan and Liam Carney, have give or take, been together on this since its premiere in Dublin in 2015. That explains why the deconstructed mayhem is so precise.
This is an entertainment that will stick in the Tourist’s memory for some time, he suspects. No scrub that. This is something that it will take a long time for him to forget.