A Very Expensive Poison at the Old Vic review *****

A Very Expensive Poison

Old Vic Theatre, 9th September 2019

Lucy Prebble wrote The Effect, ENRON and The Sugar Syndrome all of which were rightly lauded. She is currently one of the writers on Succession the best thing on the telly in this, or any other, year. And Guardian journalist Luke Harding writes vital books about the modern state, two of which have already been made into films. So this adaptation of his book A Very Expensive Poison: The Definitive Story of the Murder of Litvinenko and Russia’s War with the West was always going to be A BIG THING. And so it proved. The Old Vic is always a good place to spy luvvie types on their nights off and the evening we (the SO and the Blonde Bombshells) went was no exception. I won’t say who the Tourist fawned over this time. Just that it was almost as great a pleasure as the play itself.

Now this being Lucy Prebble we were never going to get a straightforward narrative. Even so the sheer invention on/in show was breathtaking. First though a quick reminder of the story. Alexander Litvinenko was an officer of the Russian FSB secret police who specialised in investigating the links between the state and organised crime. In 1998 he and other officers publicly accused their superiors of ordering the assassination of oligarch, and thorn in Putin’s side, Boris Berezovsky. He was acquitted but re-arrested, and when the charges were again dismissed, he fled to London with his family, where he was granted asylum, wrote articles and books accusing the FSB and others of terrorist acts and worked with British intelligence. In November 2006 he suddenly fell ill and was hospitalised. It transpired that he had been poisoned by a lethal radioactive dose of polonium-210. The subsequent British investigation pinned the blame on Andrey Lugovoy a former member of Russia’s Federal Protection Service but he could not be extradited. Litvinenko’s widow Marina, together with biologist Alexander Goldfarb, tirelessly sought justice for her husband and a coroner’s inquiry was set up in 2011. This was eventually, after much foot dragging by the Home Office, (yep one T May was in charge), followed up with a public enquiry which in 2016 conclusively ruled that his murder was sponsored by the FSB and likely conducted with the direct approval of FSB director Nikolai Patrushev and Putin himself.

Not difficult to understand why Luke Harding would want to document this extraordinary story or why Lucy Prebble could see its dramatic potential. The action centres on the indefatigable Marina (MyAnna Buring) and, in a series of slickly staged flash-backs, forwards and sideways, jumping across genres, tackles the who, how and why of the crime. I would be a liar if I can remember all the striking scenes but let’s try a few. The song and dance routine in a quasi brothel led by Peter Polycarpou’s Berezovsky. Amanda Hadingue as Professor Dombey giving a rapid fire 101 lecture on the history of radiation complete with puppets, Tom Brooke’s oddball Alexander Litvinenko serving up deadpan humour from the hospital bed which regularly appears on stage in a thrice, the two incompetent stooges played by Lloyd Hutchinson and Michael Shaeffer sent to carry out the assassination, the super meta-theatricality of Reece Shearsmith’s petulant, but still sinister, Putin commenting unreliably from the Old Vic boxes, the tell-tale trail of radiation handprints, the powerful direct address to the audience from Marina, and, finally, Alexander.

Of course the whole idea is to mess around with the truth in order to show how the modern state messes about with the truth. This near vaudevillian approach to political satire is not especially new (for LP herself), indeed I could imagine Joan Littlewood lapping this text up in the heyday of the Theatre Workshop, but the juxtaposition with such a serious subject is what makes this so interesting and, in some ways, challenging. OK so I can see why some might tire of all the theatrical fun and games but the abrupt shifts in tone, with humour constantly undercutting the serious narrative, worked for us, and, judging by the reaction, the audience including my new celebrity friend.

Bringing all this together will have tested the directorial powers of John Crowley, who has spent most of the last decade on a movie set. However this is the man who brought Martin McDonagh’s Pillowman to the NT stage so this wasn’t going to phase him. Mind you success was in no small measure due to the versatile box set of Tom Scutt, the choreography of Aletta Collins and remarkably nifty stage management from Anthony Field, Jenefer Tait and Ruby Webb.

I have said it before and I’ll say it again. If you want to make a powerful political point in the theatre then humour is your best bet. But it is also the most difficult way to do so. Maybe this isn’t absolutely perfect but given how much Lucy Prebble has gifted us here, as in her previous plays, it is as close as dammit and for that we should be grateful.

Natalia Goncharova exhibition at Tate Modern review *****

Natalia Goncharova

Tate Modern, 26th August 2019

Right cards on the table. If I don’t start getting a move on I am never going to catch up in terms of documenting my cultural adventures on this blog, Which would render it even more pointless and too much of a chore. So focus Tourist. Focus.

Cards on table again. I had a vague idea who Natalia Goncharova was before I pitched up to this. But I knew she was “important”, the reviews said go and Tate membership needed justifying.

Wise call. My guess is that I had seen some of her work in the Russian Art post the Revolution at the Royal Academy a couple of years ago. Mind you as someone who never fully signed up to any art movement, in fact quite the reverse as she plundered from everywhere and everyone, I can’t be entirely sure. What I can be sure of is that NG was an artist in the very top rank in the first half of the C20. Which is a pretty crowded field.

Quick bio. She was born in 1881 into an impoverished aristocratic, but academic, family, (shades of Chekhov), with money coming from textiles, in a village 200kms south of Moscow, to which she moved with her family in 1892. Studied sculpture at Moscow Art School at the turn of the century and met life long partner, and tireless advocate, Mikhail Fedorovich Larionov. European modernism, direct from Paris was an early influence on NG, but her early work actually drew more on traditional Russian folk art, most obviously the lubok, a popular coloured print format with simple graphics. Yet the works that she contributed to the first exhibition of the radical Jack of Diamonds Group in 1911, whilst still portraying folk art subjects, offer an abstracted, fragmented perspective clearly in debt to Cubism.

In 1912 NG and Larionov did found a school dedicated to traditional Russian art formats but this was quickly followed in 1913 by their so-called rayonism which took the geometric forms of futurism and vorticism but with subjects lit by prominent rays of light. In September of that year NG held her first solo exhibition in Moscow, comprising over 800 works, in a jumble of styles that peers dubbed vschestvo or “everythingism”. You get the picture (forgive the pun).

She then moved with Larionov to Paris where she fell in with the beau monde and specifically Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes for whom she designed costumes and sets most notably for works by Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky and Stravinsky. She was the go-to designer when Russian folk stories graced the bill whilst still continuing to paint, teach and illustrate books . Contributions to exhibitions in London and New York in the 1920’s and 1930’s extended her renown but commissions dried up through the 1940s and 1950s. In 1955 she and Larionov married and there was sufficient interest in their work to mount a major retrospective by the Arts Council in London in 1961. NG died in Paris in 1962.

This varied practice was fully represented in this extensive exhibition with 170 contributions from numerous private and public collections, especially her native Russia, and specifically Moscow’s State Tretyakov Gallery. It kicks off with early works and her own collection of objects that show, for all her affinity with up to the minute modernism, her life long connection to Russian folk art. One word people. Colour. For this is what leaps out across NG’s work. Take the electric orange she sprays around. Or the cobalt blue. Straight out of the tube with no attempt to dull then down or change the tone. Just delicious.

The second room takes pieces drawn from the collections of turn of the century Moscow industrialists, Ivan Moroznov and Sergei Shchukin, which mixed the best of post-impressionism and early modernism with traditional Russian folk art. Alongside NG’s own syntheses, seen in the work taken from the her 1913 exhibition, it is the bold colours, simple forms and flat surfaces which links everything together. The nine part (seven are brought together here) series of large scale oil paintings, Harvest, dominated by bright blues, oranges and purples, are probably the most striking examples of this synthesis but it is there across all the pieces from this period, whether prints, drawings, textiles, wallpapers or designs for theatre and clothing. It might look like a Cezanne, Gaugin, Matisse or Picasso, but the feel is recognisably NG.

This individual style wasn’t just in her art but also in her self. NG strutted around as a full-on boho, face painted, showcasing her own designs, which led to commissions from the trendiest Moscow couture houses. Remember this was still the streets of Moscow not Paris, at a time of massive social upheaval. The 1905 Revolution may have loosened things up a bit in Russia but this was still the most conservative country, give or take, in Europe. When WWI opened the couple were in Paris but had to return to Moscow in August 1914 when Larionov was called up, though it wasn’t long before he returned, wounded, from the front line and was then demobilised. NG’s response was a series of lithographs, Mystical Images of War, which combined the national symbols of the Allied Powers with images from Russian liturgical works and medieval verse. Angels wrestling biplanes, the Virgin Mary morning the fallen, Death’s Pale Horse.

These are tremendous, and served to broaden NG’s reach, but they are surpassed by the selection from the Evangelists series in room 6. These large scale, powerfully direct images were based on the tradition of icon paintings but proved too much for the Russian authorities who had them removed from the 1912 exhibition. and again in 1913, this was not just because NG was a woman co-opting an exclusively male artistic tradition but also because of their astonishing modernity. (This wasn’t the first time the Russian “taste” police took offence: her 1910 painting The Deity of Fertility was confiscated and she was charged with some “corrupting the public morals” bollocks). The label “Neo-Primitive” is sometimes applied to NG’s work, including these, but, like the term Flemish Primitive to describe the early Northern Renaissance, it is misleading. Lines may be simple, forms resolutely modernist, colours flat, but these induced a similar reaction in the Tourist to the jewels of the early C15.

All her ideas are also reflected in the collection of book illustrations, catalogues and other promotional material that NG produced in the 1910s and 1920s when she was at the centre of artistic life in Moscow and then Paris. Following this are works from NG and Larionov’s response to cubism and futurism and specifically their rayonist manifesto. Now the subjects are machines and urban, not rural, life and movement and energy are the forces she seeks to capture. Landscapes, plants and people still appear but NG quickly veers to abstraction. Remember this was still 1913, pre WWI, making NG, in her prolific abundance, one of the first major artists of the time to embrace specifically non figurative art. Mind you the years just before the outbreak of WWI might just have been the most fertile in the history of Western art and ideas circulated so quickly it is tricky to know who influenced who. Anyway the point is that NG and ML were right in there.

Now in some ways, given all this outpouring of beauty, that NG got somewhat hijacked by the commissions for fashion, costume and interior designs that flooded in as her work became widely known across Europe and into the US. Teaching also took up her time. The 1920s and 1930s revealed a fascination with Spanish culture and the iconic Spanish Woman is featured in much of her non-theatre work in those years. The final room is devoted to the set and costume designs for the Ballet Russes and others, accompanied by early film performance footage and music. The “exotic” vision of the East has been a staple of C19 and C20 Western performance art, and NG’s physical representations, for the likes of works such as Le Coq d’or, the unperformed Liturgy, Les Noces, Sadko and L’Oiseau de feu are as much a part of the aesthetic, if not more so, than the music of Rimsky-Korsakov or Stravinsky.

There isn’t much other work from the 1940 and 1950’s as NG turned to a more neo-classical style, maybe harking back a bit too much to her younger self, and rheumatoid arthritis took its toll. NG may be one of the most “valuable” woman artists in the auction room but I can’t help feeling her career, after the massive creative outpouring at the beginning, and even allowing for the beauty of the theatrical design, got pushed towards design and away from “fine” art. The world is catching up with the brilliance and diversity of women artists at work prior to the second half of the C20, though it has taken long enough, but, I would contend, NG stands somewhere near the forefront, for who she was as well as what she created. Modern and traditional and overflowing with life. Apparently she once punched a bloke for calling her “Mrs Larionov”. And not just because she was by far the more famous, and talented, artist.

As it happens this is only the second exhibition dedicated solely to her work outside of Russia. Mind you although she left all her work to her native country it didn’t appear in state museums until glasnost and even then it was only in 2013 that the collection was presented en masse in Moscow.

The Cherry Orchard at the Stadsschouwburg Amsterdam review *****

The Cherry Orchard (De Kersentuin)

Internationaal Theater Amsterdam, Staddschouwburg Rabozaal, 20th June 2019

One of the world’s greatest theatre makers in Simon McBurney directing. Actors from probably the world’s greatest theatre company in the form of the ITA (previously Toneelgroep). An adaptation from Robert Icke no less with his Dutch equivalent Peter van Kraaij as dramaturg. Luminaries such as Miriam Buether as designer, Paula Constable on lighting, Pete Malkin on sound and video from Will Duke. All working on, what for me, is actually Chekhov’s best, and final, play The Cherry Orchard. I wasn’t going to miss this. And nor should you either in Amsterdam or in London as I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this pops up at the Barbican next year.

Brace yourself mind. Mr McBurney was never going to offer us samovars and birch trees. Nor just a bitter-sweet, tragi-comedy focussed on text and character. He treats Chekhov in the same way as he has treated Brecht or opera. Whilst this may be his debut with the ITA he has illustrious past form at the Holland Festival, of which this production is a part, with productions of Stravinsky’s A Rake’s Progress and the joint Dutch National Opera/ENO Magic Flute, as well as Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita.

The Cherry Orchard offers a portrait of an impoverished landowning family and their retinue, forced to sell their beloved cherry orchard to pay their debts. Their world is changing. Serfdom, following the 1861 emancipation reform, has disappeared. The proletariat is set to overturn their masters who have failed to modernise economy and society. A new, moneyed middle class bourgeoise has emerged. The context should provide an atmosphere of impending doom and a kind of warped nostalgia against which the individual relationships between the characters can be explored. Mr McB’s modern-dress, kinetic interpretation, (we are in 1970’s Holland as the optimism of the 1960’s have given way to economic crisis and political unrest I assume), maybe plays this down a little but the insight this affords into the individual psyches of the characters, the futility of their existence, and the subversions of their class, more than compensates. This is a long way from naturalistic, and I suspect may not have been everyone’s glass of genever; indeed I overheard one very irate middle-aged British couple bailing out at the interval.

Chekhov productions, and especially The Cherry Orchard with its twelve main parts, all of which have plenty to say, can take a little while to gain momentum. Not here. Mind you, that in part reflects the power of this company which, emotionally and physically, never holds back. Bouts of intense activity are followed by periods of listlessness and ennui, reflecting the gap between the lofty intentions of these people and their lived indifference. Most of the action is focussed on a relatively constrained, dramatically lit plinth in the front centre of the wide Rabozaal stage upstairs in the Staadschouwburg. This functions as nursery in Acts I and IV, (there is a little doll’s house to make the point), but with no walls or doors, though a bold sound design simulated the slamming of doors and heavy footsteps, and as the garden in Act II. For the Act III party, here a pretty racy affair, with Hendrix and the Velvet Underground as soundtrack, the rest of the stage was utilised. The beloved orchard appeared only in video projection, alongside the Paris that the family has left and, to highlight the theme of ecological catastrophe that the perpetual student and would be revolutionary Trofimov (Majd Mardo) declaims, a nuclear power station.

Chris Nietveld’s world weary Madame Ranevskaya, here just Amanda, seeks attention but it is, deliberately, Gijs Scholten van Aschat’s Lopakhin, here Steve, who is the focus of attention. He takes no pleasure in buying the estate from the family, in fact their inability to grasp their fates just makes him miserable. These two, as I know from previous ITA productions, simply cannot help but draw the eye, but I was also taken with Eva Heijnen’s feisty Anya, Janni Goslinga’s doleful Clara, Steven van Watermeulen’s wheedling Boris and Bart Seegers’ doltish Leopold.

Maybe all this sharpened imagery and performance takes away from the sense of a past in snapshot that other productions have described. And some scenes teeter towards farce though to be far this only reflects AC’s voiced intention. Mind you he said that in response to the super gloomy opening night in 1904. There is an improvisatory quality to proceedings to set alongside the technical barrage which I can see would wind a lot of punters up. And it got a bit of a pasting from the Dutch press.

Me though, I loved it.

Three Sisters at the Almeida Theatre review ****

Three Sisters

Almeida Theatre, 25th April 2019

It creeps up on you this Three Sisters. As with her feted take on Tennessee Williams’s neglected Summer and Smoke last year, Almeida Associate Director Rebecca Frecknall is unafraid of letting the play take its time to unfold and delivers a similar, dreamy quality to events in this Chekhov staple. And, with Cordelia Lynn’s loose-limbed, idiomatic, yet poetic, adaptation, (draw from Helen Rappaport’s literal translation), and Hildegard Bechtler’s barely-there set and timeless costumes, (if there had been some old rope lying around I would have guessed she were the taking the p*ss), she has some very willing accomplices. This is a Three Sisters pretty much stripped of context or artifice, no birch trees or big frocks here, where we are forced to focus entirely on the relationships between the characters. Time, space and place, and even action at some points, are erased to just leave people, their language and their interaction (or lack thereof – there aren’t many great listeners is Chekhov).

Fair enough. This is, after all a play about (father and mother-less) three sisters and their dodgy brother (I’ve always wondered if Anton C had a Bronte thing going on), bored sh*tless and pointlessly dreaming of returning to the buzz of metropolitan Moscow. And marriage. And its frustrations. And parenthood. And its frustrations. And old age. And its frustrations. And work. And its frustrations. And money. And its frustrations. And unrequited love and its frustrations. And idealism. And its frustrations. And denial. And its frustrations. And sacrifice. And emotional manipulation. And politics. And class. And knowledge. And drink. In fact the whole meaning of life gig. There’s a party. A bunch of soldiers come. There’s a duel. Then they go. A clock gets smashed. A piano doesn’t get played. And, in the background, there is the march of history with the first Russian Revolution just 5 years away from when AC completed TS.

Patsy Ferran is back with Ms Frecknall after her award winning performance in S&S but as Olga the oldest, unmarried, sister and the self sacrificing glue that holds the family, just about together. She is mesmeric but actually has less to say and do than Pearl Chanda as Masha or Ria Zmitrowicz as the youngest Irina. Here Irina veers towards needy, self-obsessed, Gen Z-er, reinforcing the abstracted nature of the interpretation. In any one else’s hands this might not have worked but Ria Zmitrowicz is good enough to get away with it, For me though Pearl Chanda as the sardonic Masha is the pick of the three. Masha is the engine room of the play, the catalyst for its sharp humour and for the changes in the direction of the meandering plot. Her infatuation with Peter McDonald’s solemn philosophising widower Lieutenant Vershinin, needs to mix a genuine passion with a sort of bored, going through the motions. And she needs to bait her cuckolded Latin teacher husband Kulygin who knows exactly what is going on. Elliot Levy’s portrayal of Kulygin certainly captured his foolishness and compulsion to deflect tension with humour but not so much his underlying sadness and yearning for Olga.

The other central female character is Natasha, (another precise performance by a favourite of mine Lois Chimimba), who goes from gauche, brittle servant to imperious lady of the house after marrying the weak, vacillating Andrey (Freddie Meredith) who spunks the, limited, family fortune away gambling. Natasha, with her doting on her new born son Bobik, her antipathy to devoted family retainer Anfisa (Annie Firbank) and her pursuit of the unseen Protopopov, the head of the local council which Andrey joins to give him purpose, is here the most conventionally Chekhovian, at least from my memory of previous productions I have seen.

Mind you my memory is far from perfect as, for a few minutes in the second act I think I may have drifted off into The Cherry Orchard as I confused the confused Ferapont (Eric MacLennan) with Firs and the drunk army doctor Chetbutykin (Alan Williams) with Leonid Andreieveitch Gayev. Fortunately the ever attentive BB’s, who, along with my other guests, BUD, KCK and, of course, the SO, put me right and, as usual, saw in the production all that I missed. This is one of the joys of Chekhov. We all agreed on the overall tone of the play, in a word melancholic, and the direction of the plot, but because there is so much of themselves explicitly voiced by these complex characters we all focussed on different facets and dimensions off their existence, to then share our findings, albeit briefly, at the end.

Normally having set out situation and the arrivals, (there are always arrivals and a departure, after moreorless dramatic disclosures, in Chekhov), here the soldiers, including the unfortunate Baron Tuzenbach (Shubham Saraf) who pines for Irina, a troubled poet Solyony (Alexander Eliot), photographer Fedotik (Akshay Sharan) and Rode (Sonny Poon Tip), AC plays start to move through the gears drawing you in with major key attempted resolutions, before drifting off into a minor key conclusion. Not here though. Once the pace is set, at Irina’s name day party, it doesn’t really alter. It is as if the ominous, “keep calm and carry on even if it is all going to sh*t” ending feeds backwards into the rest of the play. But the absence of any distraction here, (dusky lighting and ambient sound by Jack Knowles and George Dennis are as non-specific as set and costumes), the intimacy of the space, the dedication of cast and director to the intention and, especially, Cordelia Lynn’s adaptation reeled us all in and held us there. It feels its length, just shy of three hours, and there are times when words, and only words, test the patience but ultimately it is a rewarding, if nebulous, experience.

For it is perfectly possible to never get out of a wistful second gear in Three Sisters. Nick Hytner did this in his 2003 NT production, despite a cracking cast. I plumped for this in contrast to Michael Blakemore’s West End production a few months later. Which appears to have been a mistake even though MB used a Christopher Hampton rather than a Michael Frayn adaptation. Alternatively, as Benedict Andrews proved at the Young Vic in 2012, it is possible to pimp it up, rev up to fifth gear and set out on the highway. That wasn’t perfect but it was bloody exciting in parts. I think I have seen a couple of other takes before record-keeping began, (yes I am a boy and I like making lists), but don’r remember them too well but there’s always the ennui.

I see the reviews are a bit all over the place. I can see why. In this case I think the only way to be sure is to see for yourself. And, if you like it, then mark down Rebecca Frecknall’s next outing. I suspect she will have her way with Ibsen one day soon. That could be very interesting. Meanwhile we have another Three Sisters in the pipeline. This time at the NT with Inua Ellams shifting the action to 1960s Nigeria and with Nadia Fall in the director’s chair. Neither, in my experience, reach for the soporific so this should be fun.

Wild East at the Young Vic review ***

Wild East

Young Vic Theatre, 13th February 2019

So after an hour spent in the florid company of an unraveling traveller couple courtesy of Cuzco at Theatre 503, followed by a hour lapping up the detail of natural and man-made beauty through the eyes of John Ruskin (The Power of Seeing at Two Temple Place – do go – it’s free and open late on Wednesdays) how would the Tourist’s day end?

In the bonkers company of April de Angelis. That’s how. You know how something turns out to be not quite what you expect. This hour or so was exactly that. What with her adaptation of My Brilliant Friend and The Village based on Lope de Veja’s Fuenteovejuna, as well as After Electra, (I haven’t seen her acclaimed play Jumpy), I have been much taken with Ms de Angelis’s work. So I signed up for Wild East reading that it was a satire on the corporate interview, (a comfortable space for a recovering running dog/capitalist lackey). I imagined something along the lines of Jordi Galceran’s play The Gronholm Method which went down well at the Menier Chocolate Factory last year.

Should probably have focussed more on the words “surreal”, “outlandish” and “human chaos”, and the reference to Ionesco, in the Young Vic blurb. For that about sums up Ms Angelis’s three hander which debuted at the Royal Court in 2005. Frank (Zach Wyatt) is plainly nervous as he begins his interview/evaluation with Dr Jacqueline Pitt (Lucy Briers) and Dr Marcia Gray (Kemi-Bo Jacobs). So was I as I realised the creatives weren’t joking when they indicated that this would be old-stool bench seating. The audience in the Clare is ranged around an entirely MDF set courtesy of Sarah Beaton. Nothing else. The Tourist managed to find a perch with some back support but there was still a palpable sense of WTF as the cast emerged from audience. As it turned out props, and in some cases bits of costume, also adopted the plywood aesthetic, though this shifted as the play developed.

Frank is an accidental anthropologist, keen to return to Russia, to help a nameless corporation further its greenwashing agenda. Dr Gray is a stiff-backed stickler for the bureaucratic selection “process”. Dr Pitt is unconvinced by Frank’s credentials but clearly has issues stemming from PTSD after a recent “accident” in Russia. Turns out the two women are past lovers and Frank a pawn in their personal battles even as they plead loyalty to the “bosses” that are watching them as they in turn decide who is next for the chop. Or something like that. The targets of April de Angelis’s ire come thick and fast: anthropology and psychology as marketing technique, “developing markets” environmental cover-ups, learned corporate behaviours, the subjugation of personal identity to organisational process, and so on. But it does get pretty messy and pretty weird, especially when it goes full-on shaman at the end.

These are entirely unbelievable characters so it is just as well that the cast play this up, with Zach Wyatt near mugging the audience with his comic portrayal of Frank, who journeys from nerd to willing yes-man, Kemi-Bo Jacobs sounding like she had just stepped out of a science programme from the 1950s as she tries to staunch her insecurity and Lucy Briers adopting a air of sardonic victimhood throughout. Lekan Lawal as director, (the recipient of this year’s Genesis prize), also runs with the “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach to interpretation of the play, heightened by the use of microphones for key chunks of dialogue.

Another 90 minutes I wouldn’t have missed but another 90 minutes I won’t get back (nor will, literally, my back). Weird day. Still if you don’t want intellect or lumbar to be challenged you can always stay in and watch an interminable “realistic’ US box set on Netflix. Just like billions of other slack-jawed consumers.

The Good Person of Szechwan at the Barbican Theatre review ****

The Good Person of Szechwan

Moscow Pushkin Drama Theatre, Barbican Theatre, 9th February 2019

I am a sucker for these Russian theatre companies. Despite the fact that I can’t say I was bowled over by the last visits of the Maly Drama Theatre of St Petersburg and the Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre of Russia. Much to admire but they don’t half go on a bit. Still it’s the idea of seeing Russian drama in Russian that appeals to this culture vulture. So I signed up for the Chekhov Cherry Orchard and this Brecht classic in an instant, though given that past experience, I went for the cheap seats just in case.

Which turned out to be a wise choice in the case. of The Cherry Orchard. No review for the simple reason that I only made it to the interval. To be absolutely clear this was not because it is a poor play, I have seen TCO on many occasions and when it works it can be as good as theatre gets, (though I prefer Uncle Vanya’s dose of comic deprecation alongside all the revelatory ennui). Translation is, and was, not a problem, though this version felt a bit peremptory, and my eye was a little caught between the sur-title banners. A minor irritation. Nor was I phased by the vogue-ish set and setting. A raked stage, made up of various entrances, a kind of crucifix in the centre, expressionist lighting, modern-ish dress, devoid of samovar and birch, stylised choreography with multiple “crowd tableaux”. Maybe the production advertised its Absurdism a little too loudly but nothing the Tourist can’t deal with having seen, and enjoyed, some challengingly bonkers stuff in the last few years. Creatives can, and should, arse about with Chekhov. The old boy can take it.

Nope the problem for me was that, amidst all this invention from director Vladimir Mirzoev and team, which certainly looked brilliant, and lent rhythm and context to the drama, Chekhov’s philosophical musings got a bit lost along the way. There was some pretty heavy-handed symbolism; one or two little sailor-suited Grishas, Madame Raneskaya’s dead son kept popping up, Lopakhin was sex symbol as well as vulgar, proto-capitalist, governess Charlotta, in full on Kate Bush Withering Heights mode, becomes a kind of spirit presaging the coming Revolution, there are blood-bags standing in for the Orchard !!!!. If there was a meaning in the text, or in the sub-text, then this production wasn’t going to hold back from offering up a visual signifier to make sure the you didn’t miss it. TCO is so much more than a bunch of air-head, spendthrift aristos blind to what is happening around them. There are individuals wrestling with their own destinies and there are relationships to be unpicked.

I could see the parallels with the world today, an exalted elite about to be overwhelmed by a populist wave, interesting in the context of modern Russia, but it was also pretty clear that this wasn’t for me. So I missed the techno party in swimsuits and Alexander Petrov turning Lopakhin into a full-on oligarch, but I think it was the right call.

What it did do though was get the juices flowing for The Good Person of Szechwan. If this was the way a Russian company was prepared to shake up their own uber-dramatist, what might they do with the German sage, albeit with a different director, Russian wunderkind Yury Butusov in the hot seat. The last time I saw TGPOS was so long ago I had forgotten the details but I did remember it makes a few strong points tellingly well, even if it takes it time to do so, it is long on tunes and that whoever plays Shen Teh earns their fee.

Basics first. Brecht completed the play in 1941 by which time he was in the US though its first performance was in Zurich in 1943. Long-time collaborators Margarete Steffin and Ruth Berlau worked with Brecht, and the score and songs were created by Swiss composer Huldreich Georg Früh. However in 1947, Paul Dessau created and alternative collection of songs which is now the standard and which was used in this production. TGPOS has all the Brechtian “epic theatre” hallmarks though it was obviously inspired by an interest in the conventions of Classical Chinese drama, not just in terms of subject, a parable involving the intervention of gods on humans, but also the situation and performance style. There is also, to my eyes, more than a nod to classical Geek drama, with the intervention of the Gods at beginning and, in the trial, at the end. As well of course, as a classic double identity plot.

The original title translates in German as “love as a commodity” but also, in a different spelling as ‘true :one” which gives a fair idea of Brecht’s target. Shen Teh is a prostitute who struggles to live a “good life” in line with the morality handed down by the gods. Everyone around her takes advantage of her generosity to the point where she invents an alter ego male Shui Ta, to protect her interests. Shen Teh meets a suicidal unemployed pilot, Yang Sun, with whom she falls in love, but he too, egged on by his mum. only ends up exploiting her. Eventually Shen Teh deception is revealed and a trail ensues.

And so we have a dualism, a dialectic if you will, between gender, between altruism and exploitation, between the individual and society. Economic substructure defines the morality in the human superstructure; the gods gift Shen Teh the money to buy her tobacco shop, the relations between Shen Teh and her customers and her landlord, Yang Sun pretending to love Shen Teh to get his hands on her capital. There is also, for me, a religious dimension. Why won’t the all powerful goods intervene to prevent this naughty humans getting up to no good rather than piling all the pressure on Shen Teh? It’s not subtle but it’s still vital.

So plenty to get your teeth into if this is the bag you are into. Which I most definitely am. This being Brecht, there is plenty more beyond the Marxist, (filtered through the writings of theoretician Karl Korsch,) economics lesson. We begin, for example (after bit of sand play) in the prologue with a direct address to us, well the Gods, through the character of Wong, the unfortunate water seller, he played by Alexander Matrosov, in a somewhat disturbing, palsied “village idiot” manner. (I have to assume Russian audiences have a rather less enlightened attitude to disability). The set, designed by Alexander Shishkin is spare, and dark, denoting a “derelict, abandoned world” according to the programme, with props, (chairs, beds, bicycles, a noose, dogs – you know the usual apocalyptic detritus), scattered across the Barbican stage and three birch trees shielding a backdrop for sledgehammer visuals (Diane Arbus’s twins a particular brazen favourite). The lighting design of Alexander Sivaev is suitably harsh, though effective. The jazzy Dessau score and songs, in German, are used in their entirety though the on-stage band, under director Igor Gorsky, doesn’t skimp on additional eclectic arrangement and material, even some incongruous dub and EDM.

A well choreographed Anastasia Lebedev plays all the Gods, and Alexander Arsentiev is Yang Sun, here just Unemployed Man. The rest of the cast (with a few familiar faces from The Cherry Orchard) loads up on supporting roles with no doubling and the whole ensemble moves, sings and performs with gusto. And that is certainly the case with a shouty Alexandra Ursulyak in the lead role, for which she has been garlanded in Russia. Apparently the production is rooted in the concept of “behavioural plasticity” which is a real biological thing where organisms react to changing external stimuli. And there was me thinking they were acting. Anyway Ms Ursulyak’s torn fishnets, shiny plastic mac and gars make-up for Shen Teh, and baggy pinstripe suit, bowler and pencil moustache screamed alienated cabaret Weimar which persuaded me.

There were a few scenes which lagged (200, 330, 500 silver dollars) but, overall, as it should be with competent Brecht the 3 hour 20 minute running time wasn’t a chore, given a translation to follow, political lessons to be absorbed, songs to enjoy, after a fashion, and Shen Teh’s journey to absorb. And some cracking stagecraft. Rice rain anybody? Or better still a deluge of fag packets? The production first appeared in 2013, and I’ll warrant will be playing for many years yet.

The Tourist consumes a play that explores the contradiction between morality and capitalism, especially the commodification of relationships, bought to London by its most famous Russian oligarch emigre. Pick the bones out of that BD.

Uncle Vanya at the Hampstead Theatre review ****

Uncle Vanya

Hampstead Theatre, 12th January 2019

Should you be tempted to follow the Tourist into a life of excess …. theatre-going … then I have a warning. These luvvies do put on a lot of Shakespeare. No surprise there I guess. But they also really, really love their Chekhov. As will you after prolonged exposure. But I had not realised just how much there is lurking about. Particularly when you remember there are only really five full plays to choose from. There are a also handful of one-acters and “Platonov”, but basically you are going to get to know these five pretty quickly, particularly when you consider that, whisper it, they all explore similar themes in similar settings. Mind you, given the day-job as a doctor and the billions of short stories he wrote you could never say our Anton was an idler.

It’s the tragic-comedy thing I think. That’s what the directors, casts and, obviously, us audiences are attracted to. And the fact that there are so many layers. And that the characters, even if they are of a certain class at a certain time in a certain place, grapple with the real stuff of life. In short they spend a lot of time basically f*cking it up in one way or another, as we all do. The misery of dashed expectation.

The Chekhov industry also benefits from the seemingly unquenchable desire of other playwrights to adapt his dramas. Not just new works in some way drawn from or inspired by the great man, but countless new adaptations generally now taken directly from literal translations, which the dramatists have then stamped their own ideas, idiom and style on. And I am only talking about the English versions. Samuel Adamson, Torben Betts, Ranjit Bolt, Martin Crimp, Michael Frayn, Brian Friel, Pam Gems, Peter Gill, Christopher Hampton, David Hare, David Harrower, Robert Icke, David Lan, Mike Poulton, Carol Rocamora, Simon Stephens, Tom Stoppard and Nicholas Wright. That’s just the playwrights I have heard of. A very illustrious list I am sure you will agree.

This diversion was sparked by an interesting essay in the programme which looks at the translation and adaptation process and, in particular, how necessary or desirable it is to stay close to the language and/or spirit of Chekhov’s original text. Given AC’s ability to capture the universal, as well as the very particular, I can see why this continues to be a source of immense fascination to these clever and talented people.

Particularly when you consider the fact that this play, Uncle Vanya, is itself based on AC’s own earlier play The Wood Demon. This was written in 1889 though never published but sufficient manuscripts survived and many patient Russian theatre companies have given it a go. AC was pressured into writing it by his publisher Aleksey Suvorin who also contributed plot and even some text. By all accounts he was a bit rubbish but when he lost interest AC kept going and, after it was rejected by three theatres, The Wood Demon eventually got a showing only to be crucified by critics and (small) audiences alike. AC though didn’t give up on it, retaining two-thirds of the text but cutting the cast back to 9 main characters, (previously many of these had “doubles’ of one sort or another), upping the autobiographical contribution, (prevalent in all the plays), reworking Suvorin’s nepotistic bequest and stripping out a load of poncey literary references. And changing a crucial bit of plot, from a successful to a failed, suicide. Result? Well not quite overnight success,Uncle Vanya had a few provincial outings and a bit of a run in with the censors before the triumphant opening in Moscow, but it is, arguably, his most perfect work.

It was probably then only a matter of time before Terry Johnson joined the roll call of other very clever playwrights listed above and had his own shot at Chekhov. Here he upped the interpretative stakes by taking on the role of director as well, (and casting daughter Alice Bailey Johnson as Sonia). My regular reader will know that I am more than favourably disposed to the work of Mr Johnson, despite being a relatively late-comer, with his last original outing, Prism, in this very house, turning into one of those plays that continues to pop up in the memory.

Well he unashamedly opts for the traditional when it comes to the setting, though Tim Shortall’s design cleverly morphs the interior and exterior of stylised dacha with silver birches, and Ben Ormerod’s lighting attractively rings the diurnal and seasonal changes. And there is some mighty fine tailoring on show. The production thus continues the HT’s long run of exquisite sets. (Mind you, having set up the look of fin de circle rural Russia, the soundscape of Emma Laxton doesn’t do much to offer an aural equivalent). TJ has no truck with any of, for example, the modish Anglicisation of Robert Icke’s Vanya at the Almeida. The language is simple, direct and idiomatic. “Modest” is what Terry Johnson, in his own words, set out to achieve and a modest production is what he delivers.

Whilst this might, at times, leave a little bit of the characters’ complexity of motive of the table it does make for a beautifully crisp plot development. Who does what to whom is very easy to grasp and this leaves plenty of headspace to ponder why they do what they do. AC famously said he was better at writing middles than ends and beginnings and this straight reading emphasises that and doesn’t encourage too much in the way of contextual or historical analysis. It is though very funny. Mr Johnson is alert to the humour in Chekhov and, as director, he can, er, direct us towards it. Whilst still showing up the vulnerabilities and venoms that lie behind it.

Alan Cox is a perky, self-aware Vanya. He can’t resist conspiratorially pointing out the failings of others though he well knows his own. He could have been a contender but now he is mordantly shuffling towards …. nothingness. Robin Soans as Serebryakov is fall of flatulent entitlement and Kirsty Oswald, who stepped in at the last minute to replace debutant Abbey Lee, is an unusually sensitive Yelena. (Apparently she kicked off with script in hand in which case she has come a very long way very quickly. Bravo). Alice Bailey Johnson similarly gives us a Sonya who is more assertive than normal, completing, with June Watson’s Marina, a triumvirate of women who bear the burden of supporting their various menfolk. Kika Markham also turns in a solid performance as Maryia, blindly in thrall to her son-in-law’s feeble academic reputation, as does Alec Newman as pickled idealist doctor, and babe magnet by geographical isolation, Astrov, and David Shaw-Parker as the permanently chipper hanger-on Telyeghin.

The Tourist caught one of the last performances, which, in a classic as richly textured as this, is normally not a bad idea. which means it’s gone now. However, if you are still a Vanya virgin don’t despair, (at least not at all you see it). Just like the 38 bus there be another one along shortly.