After Shakespeare’s, Anton Chekhov’s plays are perhaps the most human. Literary critic James Woods believes Chekhov’s characters “act like free consciousness, not as owned literary characters, [that they] forget to be Chekhov’s characters,” such is the way the playwright allows them simply to be. Both Shakespeare and Chekhov, as playwright David Hare writes, “respected the absolute complexity of life [and] never allowed their creations to be used for any other purpose than being themselves.” Not only a humanist, Chekhov was also a political writer, as socially and specifically pointed as Tolstoy, Gorky, Shakespeare. But while everyone celebrates Chekhov’s mastery in his four most well-known works – the plays The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard – his short stories are also exceptional, as are his rougher earlier plays, Platonov and Ivanov.
The story of a group of young idealists with the whole world ahead of them, Platonov – like so much of Chekhov, as in life – is about love, relationships, the people who get under our skin, and the extraordinary lengths we go to rid ourselves of feeling too much. Specifically, it is about Platonov, a provincial schoolteacher, “who faces up to the implications of being irresistibly attractive to four different women.” Presented here by MopHead and Catnip Productions in conjunction with ATYP Selects, this Platonov is bursting with passion, sexual energy and desperation, and in Anthony Skuse’s adaptation it explodes across the ATYP Studio stage in a riot of colour, emotion and drinking.
Written when Chekhov was just twenty (or twenty-one; some accounts propose eighteen), Platonov shows all the now-trademark signs of ‘a Chekhov play’. But where his later plays have intricately-plotted structures, and are focused on reactions rather than actions, here Platonov is seemingly filled, in Hare’s words, with a “wildness, a sort of feverish ambition, a desire, almost, to put the whole of Russia on the stage, while at the same time focusing comically on one of its most sophisticated victims.” Often called ‘Fatherlessness’ after its possible Russian title ‘Bezotzovschina’, it is a giant scream of a play about the rift between the young and old, the distinction between history and tradition, and the present and immediate unrelenting Here and Now. Unlike the later plays, it’s hard not to read Chekhov’s own thoughts and feelings in these characters’ mouths, to hear “his own passion, his own emotional confusion and his own political despair show uncensored and unmediated.”
Nothing in the world of Platonov is fixed. Characters fall in and out of love at the drop of a coin, they make up and break up, they fight and bicker and argue and flirt and mourn and burn each other up with their passions and pains. The characters and the play are in a constant state of flux. Chekhov, still very much a young man here, is unafraid of a mix of dramatic styles – direct address, monologue, farce, tragedy, comedy, tragicomedy… - so long as they all help him tell his story. And what a story. Staged on a traverse set eerily similar to that seen in STCSA’s Seagull, it features two dozen chairs of varying styles, shapes and ages, used and abused as required by Skuse’s mellifluous direction. As in other Skuse-directed productions, the cast barely leave the stage as observers, becoming a kind of collective ghostly presence in the half-dark at the end of ATYP’s Studio, and there is a rough kind of theatrical magic that happens here. There are no distractions, no moving set-pieces or anything complicated other than a moving light, a string of coloured globes, and various bags, bottles, knives and props brought on as required. It is beguiling, and all-too-simple, but it focuses the attention squarely on the characters – the people – which breathe and feel in front of us.
From the opening moments of the ensemble singing a Russian folk song, to the various introductions, tussles, meals, parties, elopements, fights and confessions, right through to the climactic ending and the frenzied singing in the eventual blackout, there is a sense of community here. While they are Chekhov’s characters, they could very well be us, today, now; as Skuse says in the director’s notes, “time and place are sketched very lightly.” It is laddish and robust, muscular, rough; it feels as though at any moment it could break free from its surrounds and career through the streets on its way to its inevitable conclusion. Working from Laurence Senelick’s translation, Skuse’s adaptation remains faithful to the original, yet seems to hum and fizz with an immediacy and forthrightness which has nothing to do with the occasional language peppered throughout it. It all comes down to the style of the production, to Skuse’s attention to the lives of these characters, to the way it is played; there is an immediateness, too, to each actor’s performance, that makes it seems as if it is all happening now, that they are living now.
Charlie Garber as Platonov is a curmudgeonly guy, an angry frustrated bored hipster, a kind of Russian Hamlet, consumed by jealousy, indifference, grand ideas and an almost bathetic air of ambivalence about him that makes him almost un-Chekhovian and quite repulsive. It is a wonder, sometimes, how so many women managed to fall for him; there are scenes, however, where we see Platonov the romantic shine through, little brief glimpses, and perhaps that is – if not enough justification – as much as we need to see that he isn’t perhaps as bad as he seems, that he is capable of better. Geraldine Hakewill’s Sofya is graceful, and there is an innocence and naiveté about her which is beguiling and occasionally frustrating; you wish Sofya would just do something, though the play’s conclusion proves that she is capable of indeed such a thing, that she is stronger than we at first expected. Suzanne Pereira’s Anna is perhaps older than the others though by how much we don’t know, and there is a directness but also a vulnerability to her which is intoxicating – for Platonov and for us. Matilda Ridgway’s Sasha, Platonov’s long-suffering wife, is earthy and grounded, a close cousin to her Nora in Sport for Jove’s The Doll’s House earlier in the year, and there is a determination in her, playful and fiery by turn, that is refreshing and harrowing to watch. Eloise Snape’s Mariya, a chemistry student and the last of Platonov’s set-upon lovers, is initially uncomfortable by his actions and presence, and eventually threatens to sue him for harassment, although she realises it could do more damage than good and that was not her intention.
The rest of the cast shine in their own moments of grace and humanity. Jason Perini’s Burov is gruff but humble, a decent fellow beneath the wild exterior; Gary Clementson’s Porfiri is stubborn and headstrong; Amy Hack’s Katya is graceful despite being teased and the frequent butt of everyone’s jokes; Terry Karabelas’ Petrin is cruel and harsh, but not without his reasons, and he is all-too-human like the rest of them. Graeme McRae’s Nikolai, Sasha’s brother, is one of Platonov’s best friends, though even he cannot understand Platonov at times, and though he perhaps becomes careless when drunk, he plays the end with dignity and compassion. Sam O’Sullivan’s Isak is quick to anger, but he too has his reasons, finds he cannot bring himself to waste energy on Platonov and thus takes his leave with dignity. Dorje Swallow’s Osip, the local ruffian, thief, and horse-rustler, is not so much a villain, but a temptation in the opposite mould to Platonov’s; he is beguiling and repelling in turn, though he is not without heart and kindness, as Sasha learns. Sam Trotman’s Sergei, Sofya’s husband and another of Platonov’s friends, is eager, flighty and capricious, and takes the ending hard, finding solace and comfort in his fellow citizens.
Skuse’s production is well-lit with warmth and ingenuity by Chris Page, and Alistair Wallace’s sound design is subtle and effective; in many respects, the cast and technical aspects mask an unevenness which comes though the playwright’s youthfulness. While Chekhov’s play, written when we was twenty or so, is undeniably rough, it is not without its own charm and charisma. The first act is a conglomeration of entrances and exits as everyone is introduced, almost at once; the second act is a series of two-person scenes, “a Godot-like meditation between two lost souls,” in Hare’s words. The third act is another series of two-person scenes, all featuring Platonov, while the fourth is the inevitable conclusion which must come at a price. While understandably whittled down from a youthfully unwieldy five hours, Skuse has perhaps filleted slightly too much out, and some of the relationships and beats are unclear, especially at the end of the second act. The pacing also seems slightly skewed, with much of the first half rushing by in a long and mesmerising one-hundred minute stretch, full of exuberance and energy and, despite its politics and social commentary, a good deal of humour. The second act, on the other hand, seems to drag on without much of the humour so prevalent in the first, and it seems weighed down by all its seriousness and ethical preoccupations, seems more concerned with visible plot development than that of its characters.
Like Platonov himself, you kind of love and hate the play’s ratbaggish structure, and don’t mind spending an evening in its company because, truth be told, it is an engrossing and captivating piece of theatre. While it might not be as polished as some of Skuse’s – and Chekhov’s – other work, it is still undeniably beguiling, and as the barrelling wave of self-pity, misery and loathing breaks at the end and the aftermath crashes down around them and us, a voice starts singing in the stillness, and the ensemble joins in, building to a sudden frenzied crescendo before stopping, stunned; charged. It’s powerful and emotional stuff, and it’s a rare chance to see one of the masters of dramatic form in his earlier days, before he was ‘Chekhov’. (It will be interesting, too, to see The Present, Andrew Upton’s adaptation for Sydney Theatre Company next year, and see whether
can reFrayn from turning it into another jar of Wild Honey.) Upton
There are few things which scream ‘summer’ more than three hours of Chekhov, under the wharf, with your friends.
* The ‘neopredelyonnst’ Michael Frayn talks about in his introduction to Wild Honey, his 1984 adaptation of Platonov for the National Theatre of Great Britain.
Theatre playlist: 72. She is of the heavens, Dario Marianelli