Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Review Young Chekhov Platonov/Ivanov/The Seagull

Young Chekhov
Platonov/Ivanov/The Seagull
by Anton Chekhov
in new versions by David Hare

Chekhov Cluedo
Yes, it was Anton in the drawing room with the revolver. But what led up up to the fatal shot? There is a danger seeing three early plays by the young Anton Chekhov (or in this case Chekhov as adapted by David Hare) in one day that it does become a kind of Cluedo common denominator search.

Well-educated but disillusioned young(ish) men, landowners whose mortgages are being called in, dodgy doctors, scoundrel schoolteachers, easily influenced young females, worldly wise older ones ...  Will the National Theatre's retailing arm soon be selling a "Construct Your Own Chekhov Play In A Day" kit? ;)

To be fair, it seems to TLT and her little troika, that a hint of the boxed set approach, alongside broadcasting of the plays, is probably inevitable in this day and age.

This trilogy, directed by Jonathan Kent, starts in the 19th century and ends with an updating, costume wise, of The Seagull to 1930s Russia. With the set designed by Tom Pye, a Russian estate complete with woods and water seeping onto the stage, there is the implied sense of a saga based not on one family, unless that family is the family of actors, but centred on one property. 

Platonov was never staged during Chekhov's lifetime with more than five hours' of play discovered in archives many years after his death.  Although untitled, it usually takes its name from the central character of the schoolteacher, bitter cynic Platonov who nevertheless proves an object of desire for the women around him. 

These are his wife Sasha (Jade Williams) with whom he has fathered a child, the forceful landowning general's widow, Anna (Nina Sosanya) her daughter in law Sofya (Olivia Vinall)  and the blue stocking Maria (Sarah Twomey) both repelled and attracted by him. Written by a 20 year old Chekhov for an actress who rejected the script, it remains, although cut down to two hours and 40 minutes, a baggy monster of a play. 

In Hare's version there is a vitality but also a sense that maybe it is a piece rooted in another literary form. There are a plethora of short stories contained within its flexible frame. 

Familiar Chekovian themes of debt and disillusion mix with broad melodrama, including a bandit (Des McAleer) prepared to do the violent bidding of a moneylender (David Verrey),  alongside farce. Farce, despite that tragic ending when Anton leaves the loaded revolver in the dining room. 

It's certainly a tour de force for  James McArdle as the eponymous schoolmaster, who casts himself part as Don Juan and part as Hamlet,  swirled between these women. 

There is a repertory company for all three plays with some of the actors cast in two (Peter Egan, Joshua James, David Verrey, Jade Williams, Nina Sosanya, Jonathan Coy, Pip Carter, Brian Pettifer, James McArdle, Des McAleer, Sarah Twomey Mark Penfold, Beverley Klein, Col Farrell, Geoffrey Streatfeild. Debra Gillett) or three roles (Mark Donald, Olivia Vinall, Luke Pierre) across the entire Young Chekhov opus. 

Yet in some ways Ivanov felt the most successful of the three plays for your own spritely duo. Firmly hooked in the melodramatic tradition, Ivanov is about a thwarted reformist landowner (Geoffrey Streatfeild), up to his ears in debt while obligated by his pre-announced ideals to pay his workers as well as his lenders in full.

He is obstinately set on a economically doomed course of action, railing against his dying Jewish wife (Nina Sosanya) while he knows her own lack of blame and power over the situation. Interestingly, the Young Chekhov programme notes the playwright claimed to have been engaged for a brief time to a young Jewish woman (later, unknown of course to Chekhov who died in 1904, to be arrested in her eighties in Vichy France and gassed in Treblinka). 

Before one dismisses the Ivanov story as a mere melodramatic trope, TLT can verify a similar situation in an American branch of her family - although without that familiar revolver turning up in the drawing room. 

The third play is also the most familiar - The Seagull. Olivia Vinall completes an impressive trio of roles, this time as the betrayed young Nina. 

With costumes updated to, presumably, 20th century Communist Russia, an actress mother  Irina Arkadina (Anna Chancellor) of aspiring playwright Konstantin (Joshua James) returns to her estate with celebrated writer Trigorin (Geoffrey Streatfield again). 

Naive Nina, initiated into the world of theatre in more ways than one,  pulls away from besotted Konstantin after his mother introduces her to Trigorin. 

This third play felt much more like a screen interpretation - indeed there is a visual hint that the tragic fate of Konstantin, even after some success in the literary world, is linked with the movies. Surprisingly nevertheless Irina Arkadina and Trigorin felt too sincere about their art for us in this version.  

As we have noted before, Nina's last appearance can equally encompass revenge for being lured into life as an actress and spurned lover as well as a genuinely unhinged aspect to her behaviour. This dual resonance was something we felt was lost in this adaptation. 

At the same time, Young Chekhov gave us generous dose of the playwright and the intertwined trio of plays added one more character: the Creative Tension between playwright, actors, directorial interpretation and, even if it is a big word, life.   

Above all, seeing these three productions together in one day brought home to TLT and her motorised theatre-going comrade the complex humanity which lies behind Anton in the drawing room with his characters and a loaded revolver.  An amber/green light.

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