THE RUSSIAN DOCTOR
The Door, The REP Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 11th September, 2014
When he was 30 and before he became the celebrated playwright, Anton Chekhov journeyed across Siberia in order to perform a three-month stint as resident doctor at a penal colony on the remote island of Sakhalin. In his only work of non-fiction he documented his time there. This piece of theatre seeks to translate Chekhov’s experiences into a stylised documentary, using video, lighting, sound and music to complement the movement work of the performer Andrew Dawson.
Dawson has a quiet, affable manner as he opens the show with the offer of a glass of champagne to anyone in the audience who wants it. When he narrates, he engages and fascinates, while images and film footage overlap and change on the wall-to-wall screen behind him. Pre-recorded voices take up the narration, speaking as Chekhov – at first it’s a bit jarring, having the voices changing all the time but then again, Chekhov is the Everyman figure bearing witness to this Hell.
The subject matter is relentlessly grim – there’s a powerful BBC4 documentary just waiting to be made – but I’m not sure this music-and-movement piece is entirely successful. Dawson is a lovely mover, twisting, contorting and tensing his body during the movement sequences, and while some of his imagery is beautiful and expressive, I feel there is a little too much of this; the cumulative effect is to slow the piece down. His portrayal of humanity, twisted, contorted, tense and deformed, makes the point but we need to go somewhere else to leaven the grimness.
Inventive use is made of basic props like a wheelbarrow, a tablecloth and several armfuls of soil, evoking conditions and characters at this hellacious place. The music (by Johnny Pilcher and Ewan Campbell) is especially evocative and effective. There is an attempt to link the stories to our world today: TB is still prevalent, for example; health care is far from universal – but I would have thought there is more to say about internment camps, Guantanamo Bay, and the way prisoners are treated or should be treated, as far as relevance is concerned.
You can’t help liking Dawson though, and while this little-known chapter of Chekhov’s life leaves a nasty aftertaste, it his Dawson’s skills as a performer that remind you that human beings are capable of something other than horror and cruelty.