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.