Sunday 10 July 2016

Chekhov’s First Play – Suur Saal, Rakvere

[seen 09/07/16]


One of the least useful things in writing about theatre is that your most recent experience of any given piece is the ending, the effect it has on you. In the case of Chekhov’s First Play this effect is a massive, massive sense of elation and of having been moved. Forcibly moved, almost. Christ it’s moving. But that’s the end. Who starts telling a story at the end? Idiots. Idiots and postmodernists.

Dead Centre’s Chekhov’s First Play doesn’t start at the end. In fact, it starts before the beginning. Director Bush Moukarzel walks onto the stage holding a microphone and begins to explain the concept of the show; he did it last year and “people didn’t really get it” so if we could all put on our headphones he’ll explain it as it goes along. It’s worth noting that this offer doesn’t come across as condescending or arch, it’s more humble and sad than that. Moukarzel is seems to be blaming himself as much as anyone. He offers us the fact that in art museums he spends more time reading the than looking at the art. Art is hard, he says. Dead Centre are postmodernists.

He explains the themes of the play (as he sees them) a bit; property looms large.

The curtains of the massive Rakvere theatre main house open (and, yes, I feel incredibly privileged to have seen this piece in such a perfect setting, amongst such a lot of Russian-second-language speakers, in a country where one of their theatrical landmark-productions – like maybe their Peter Hall Oresteia – is a Platonov), and we’re looking at the naturalistic outside courtyard of the __ estate, with a laid table and chairs in the foreground... Halfway, maybe, between Johannes Schultz Symbolism and Alex Eales Naturalism.

Anna (Clara Simpson) and Triletsky (Paul Reid) begin to play Chekhov’s First Scene (I’m assuming it’s the first scene; I’ve not seen another production yet), while Moukarzel haplessly tries to annotate on-the-fly (obviously, all his interjections are printed in the Oberon-published script. This seems quite crucial, actually – on one hand, this is definitely a play called Chekhov’s First Play, it’s not Chekhov’s “Platonov” (although that’s just a title we [the English, according to Wikipedia] give it). But this is a largely new thing built round an original. But another way, it’s almost just the most amazing production of Platonov imaginable given a new title to excuse that fact that it’s a bit more *Regie* than the UK generally allows under the title of the original...). There’s a slight sense, in the beginning, that neither The Director, Moukarzel (actually co-directed with Ben Kidd), nor we, his audience, are all that interested in the play itself. We’re all interested in the meanings and what we can get out of it in today’s world, but we’re not “investing in the characters” or any reactionary nonsense like that, we are incredibly effectively Brecht-alienated from that sort of identification-with the characters. We’re watching them critically as symbols of tendencies. Dead Centre absolutely have their cake and eat it here: we’re offered the character of this director, whom we do judge or identify with, and he in turn removes the illusion of agency from the world of the play. We know he’s also in the world of the play, but he sneaks past the V-Effekt.

Do you want the spoiler-version of what happens in the show? I think I can probably limit it to this paragraph, so read on for full account, or skip to next para for me going on about why I think it’s awesome...

Around precisely the point where you’ve settled into this exchange between voice-over interjections and watching radio-miked live actors, the whole is disrupted. Now, only a day later, I’m not precisely sure of the sequence in which the events take place, but: a giant wrecking ball comes and smashes into the front of the house; the cast all stand, looking out into the audience under a purple-y lighting state; a stranger is picked out of the audience with a spot-light and mounts the stage, essentially taking the place of a voiceless Platonov. This last touch especially is genius. As a result, we clearly have two Platonovs: both the director and this audience-stranger. Both the director and the stranger also seem to embody qualities of the dead author as well...


The net effect of these interventions is – counter-intuitively – a renewed sense that you really are watching Chekhov’s Platonov, interpreted and distilled to the nth degree, sure, but it’s suddenly like seeing an incredibly clear version, rather than something Other.

At the same time, the play has completely come alive as this living, vital example and critique of post-crash Ireland (and by extension, EU). This sense of end times, so vital in Chekhov (and correct, even if the October Revolution was still 39 years off when he wrote Platonov), feels completely relevant to the crashed and slumped economies of present-day Europe. The sense Triletsky talks about of there not being anywhere better than *here*, certainly seems to resonate in Rakvere, but also works perfectly as a description of *somewhere else* (plays are, I think, allowed to both be about where they are, and about somewhere else, which can resonate with the audience as they see fit). The action is suddenly transposed, seemingly, to Dublin. The script is suddenly modernised (though I didn’t quite notice it properly while watching). To call it the play’s Blasted moment would be lazy, critically, but not wholly incorrect. It’s fascinating, partly because just this simple act of dishonest honesty – they’re still no more in Dublin, here in Rakvere, than they were in Russia, and they’re still actors on stage... – makes the action feel suddenly vital. I don’t know this particular play well enough to comment exactly, but you get a sense that it cleaves very closely to Chekhov’s original where necessary, and diverts largely in modern example and occasional attitude. The substances of the relationships and observations remain in the same dynamic – despite the fact that the director has cut all the servants, which in itself feels like another a brilliant comment on (some/much) contemporary theatre.

As such, we’re suddenly plunged into this loud, exploding, recognisable world where everything is falling apart, and Chekhov’s gun is already on the table, so to speak. There’s something almost Howard Barker-ish about the figures whose shadows cross the windows on their way into the courtyard, like terrible Greek messengers. Around the table the party has broken down into a chilling game of Russian roulette. There’s something appalling and horribly recognisable even in this extreme gesture. The stranger/Platonov approaches, purposefully. We know Chekhov’s law of stage guns, and we know what often happens to his male protagonists. But, then, just at the fatal, fateful, crucial moment, the figure of the director re-emerges, and takes the gun from Platonov/the stranger’s hand, explaining that eventually, in his final play, Chekhov stopped putting guns on stage and making characters fire them (and blimey, how that resonated given the current situation in America). Moukarzel takes the gun from the stranger and pushes him forward. The stranger walks out onto the front of the stage, as behind him The Director shoots himself in the head and slumps onto the table. The curtains close, the stranger steps forward, and says the first word he can:


[‘Wrecking Ball’ cover by Death in Rome, whose political allegiances I’m choosing to view as Laibach-like radical over-identification.]

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