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.

Chekhov’s First Play at the Battersea Arts Centre review ***

Chekhov_1898_by_Osip_Braz

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.

BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican review ****

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BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo (conductor), Martin Frost (clarinet)

Barbican Hall, 17th October 2017

  • Dmitry Shostakovich – Symphony No 9 in E flat major Op 70
  • Aaron Copland – Clarinet Concerto
  • Sergei Prokofiev – Symphony No 6 in E flat major Op 111

Vikings, stave churches, Celsius, Bohr, Angstrom, Ibsen, Strindberg, Laxness, Kierkegard, Nielsen, Sibelius, Greig, Munch, Balke, Olafur Eliasson, ABBA, Bjork, Bergman (x2), Lars von Trier, Ullman, Sofia Helin, Mads Mikklesen, Kim Bodnia, the laconic Kimi, Schmeichel (P), Salonen (EP), Lego, IKEA, SAAB, zips, mobile phones, seat belts, loudspeakers, Alvar Aalto, Arne Jacobsen, art glass, Georg Jensen, BIG, arket, meatballs, herring, saunas, Gamla Stam, Djurgarden, Tivoli, that Bridge, Roskilde Cathedral, Uppsala Cathedral, Copenhagen Opera House, Temppeliaukio Church. There’s a few of my favourite Scandi  people and things. And that’s before anything from the natural world. And doesn’t include those Scandinavians I would count as friends. There are good reasons why Scandis are generally pretty pleased with themselves, though not in a wanky kind of way. They have much to be pleased about.

Anyway it turns out that there is an organisation for promoting the Scandinavian countries and their culture. CoScan. The Confederation of Scandinavian Societies. And every year since 1994 it has given an award to recognise the contribution of an individual. body or group on the international stage. Previous winners have included Sandi Toksvig, Magnus Carlsen (the best chess player in the world), Hans Blix, The Nordic Optical Telescope, that Bridge and Mika Hakkinen. This year was the turn of Finn Sakari Oramo, the Finnish Conductor of (amongst others) the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Presented on this very evening. Good on you Sakari. He seems like a thoroughly decent bloke and we here should be eternally grateful for the musical contribution he has made, especially to the Proms (five this year alone). He is a whizz across much of the Scandi composer repertoire, but especially Carl Nielsen, whose symphonies and, especially string quartets, don’t get enough of an airing IMHO.

in this programme he also wheeled out three works that should be performed more often. DSCH’s 9th may not be down there with the weird and whacky modernism of Nos 2 and 3 and the overly patriotic, fim-scorish 12th, but it does get neglected. Copland’s jazzy Clarinet Concerto is one of his favourites and was written for Benny Goodman but is pretty tricky so needs a top-notch soloist to do it justice. And Prokofiev’s 6th Symphony is rated by enthusiasts of his work but it is 1 and 5 that get trotted out most often.

So this seemed to me to be well-worth the effort. Which it certainly was. All three works come from the immediate post WWII era, and a scary time personally for DS and SP, but they are far from completely gloomy, at least in places.

Copland’s concerto is genuinely untroubled, and was premiered by Goodman in 1950. The slower opening drops straight out of Copland’s Americana, specifically Appalachian Spring, kicking off with low strings and harps, against which the clarinet meanders, with the violins then following. Just like the sad scene when the love interest dies in a Western. It then jumps into what seems to me to be a fiendishly tricky cadenza, fully written out, which Martin Frost, doing that curious Pied Piper jig that woodwind soloists seem to adore, made look simples. Of course maybe it is. What would I know. I got booted out of recorder practice at school on the grounds of persistent ineptitude. It ends with a fortissimo scale from one end of the clarinet range to the other. Amazing. Straight into the faster, final section, with all sorts of string effects like a sort of mega Bartok quartet. More showing off from Mr Frost with a jazz jam to finish. He encored with a klezmer arrangement from his brother Goran which near brought the house down. There he is above looking suitably impish. Frost is a good name for him.

DSCH initially promised a big splash for his Ninth, with soloists and chorus, just like you no who. Shostakovich being Shostakovich though what he actually served up was a five movement, small scale (by his terms) joke, which barely gets over the finish line. Obviously he has form with odd, almost embarrassingly jejune structures, and musical satire, as much as he could get away with, witness the Sixth, but here we have what I read as an entire flippant f*ck you across a whole symphony. Maybe not just to his political masters but also to the music world in general. Everything he is routinely accused of is there but recast in a sort of Haydn-esque jollity. Scurrying strings, whistling woodwind, boy soldier drums, farting brass fanfares, an abrupt “I’ve done enough” concluding chord. And that’s just the first movement. The second movement is one of those desolate stalking Moderatos but never plumbs the depths and the screaming strings never come. The scherzo lollops along but with no repeat slows into the regulation Largo with doomy fanfare and bassoon lament which as always for me at least conjures up the battlefield dead. But again it is on a tiny scale. This is the sort of movement DSCH can crank up to 20 minutes plus. This is all over in four. The symphony ends with a quick movement which kicks of with a folksy little lick which builds up and eventually dashes over the line to the close. The whole thing is like some child’s Toy-town version of a DSCH symphony. Oramo and the BBCSO, correctly, didn’t attempt to make a case for profundity, taking it straight. I loved it.

Once again I found myself being really taken with a major Prokofiev piece that I had dismissed previously. It is the most symphonic of his symphonies, the most expansive and the most, dare I say Shostakovich-ian. It does occasionally start to go a little too C19 Romantic on your ass but there are enough of the trademark SP lurches and new twists to forestall tedium. So, like DCSH, got himself into a lot of bother with Stalin’s “realist” henchman by being a sarky, modernist clever clogs. The difference is SP actually came back to Russia to face this, er, critical music. He liked to satisfy his customer but the iconoclast in him could never be entirely suppressed. The Sixth, as a commemoration for the war dead was initially OK’d by the authorities but then, in 1948, censured.

The first movement kicks off with a couple of lazy themes led by strings then oboes before snapping into gear with a third, more forthright chanting theme, set against a tick-tock rhythm, which revives the first theme and sets up a massive tutti climax. A mixture of Mahler, Shostakovich and Saint Saens, it collapses into horn squeals, then all three themes are reprised. As usual with SP it lurches around a bit but has some great colours and sounds. It can probably turn into a bit of a grandiloquent mess in the wrong hands but I reckon Mr Oramo, by cracking on, get it about right.

The second movement Largo starts off with a series of big, chromatic gestures, but with some swinging brass, a bit like Wagner loosened up and had a nice long toke. Then we move into a kind of dreamy, lyrical reminiscence, all Hollywood love story, which breaks back into the tick-tock march of the second theme, before the first is reprised, in size. Overall this movement is genuinely unsettling.

As, in some ways, is the final movement marked Vivace, but only because it kicks off in perky neo-Classical vein. Though the bass line is anything but gallant, thumping away angrily, and backed up with percussive piano. The second idea is another jolly scamp led by woodwind, then rising strings, but this time with the tuba doing its best to create havoc. Gradually the dance starts going off-kilter, the fun peters out, and nasty stuff jumps out. The chant from the first movement returns now over the percussive thuds and deep brass fanfares. A major triad to conclude. Happy and triumphant it ain’t.

Very convincing. I have subsequently revisited the work listening to a couple of Russian orchestra performances. It wasn’t just Sakari Oramo and the BBCSO who nailed this. It really is a terrific piece of music. I think I am properly converted to SP’s world. That’s the thing with “high” art. You just need to put the hours in.