Tag Archives: Anton Chekhov

A check-up from Chekhov

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.

 russian doctor

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Star Tern

THE SEAGULL

Derby Theatre, Tuesday 11th June, 2013

John Donnelly’s new version of Anton Chekhov’s masterpiece (in my view) brings the Russian tragicomedy up-to-date and yet it feels thoroughly Chekhovian.  The play is riddled with lines and themes from Hamlet – indeed, the first act involves a play-within-a-play, and it is from this device that the production takes its cue.  The setting is somewhat abstract, sometimes impressionistic, sometimes expressionistic, but it wears its theatricality overtly.  When characters, played naturalistically, deliver a soliloquy or an aside, they step over the edge of the bare black proscenium and address the audience directly.  Our positioning beyond the fourth wall represents the lake to which they often allude.  “There’s nobody out there,” mourns someone, plaintively.

But we are out there, hanging on every word of this punchy script.  These Chekhovians swear and sing Burt Bacharach (or try to) but apart from these interpolations, all the tedium and banality of their everyday lives is there, squeezing the existential angst out of them in sudden outbursts.

With precious little to do, they philosophise about Life (naturally) but also about Theatre and Writing – these are a few of my favourite things!  There are some very arch moments, playing on different levels.  I found myself shrinking in my seat when they decried theatre critics.

Blanche McIntyre directs a strong company with an assured hand, marrying the content to the form – the only happy union of the piece!  Beautifully lit by Guy Hoare, Laura Hopkins’s set reveals its versatility across the acts.

Abigail Cruttenden rules the roost as matriarch Irina, an actress who readily confesses she is never ‘off’.  She wears her passions on her sleeve and has a declamatory tone to even the most mundane of utterances.  She is the Gertrude figure whose affections have been drawn away from troubled (i.e. artistic) son Konstantin towards writer (i.e. tortured) Boris (Gyuri Sarossy).  Konstantin (the excellent Alexander Cobb) shoots a seagull, then himself (but misses) before finding some measure of success as a writer.  Konstantin loves Nina (Pearl Chanda – also excellent) who aspires to be an actor, inspired by Irina and in awe of Boris.  Meanwhile, Masha (Jenny Rainsford) loves Konstantin but settles for marrying the pleasantly dull Semyon (Rudi Dharmalingham) in that doom-laden way that these characters do.  I also particularly enjoyed Colin Haigh as the ailing Petr and David Beames as Yevgeny, but really the entire ensemble merits undiluted praise.

It’s a very entertaining version and also very rewarding.  For all its meditations, it’s what the subtext provokes in the observer that makes it a great play. It is, as its own thesis claims, a moment of the extraordinary that keeps us going through the mundanity and longings of our own mortality.  It’s a story of thwarted hopes and expectations, false alarms and anguish.  It is also very funny.

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Emotional seesaw. Pearl Chanda and Abigail Cruttenden