Chekhov’s First Play

Chekhov's First Play

Liverpool Playhouse
8th – 11th May 2019

Reviewed by Ashley McGovern
Photograph by Adam Trigg

I usually baulk whenever I see headphones invitingly placed anywhere outside of their MP3 or streaming homeland. The sign of headphones in a gallery, for instance, is one of the immediate giveaways of prodigious pretension (in my last case, a very dull panel of psychologists talking about the Gwangju Uprising). Dead Centre, in their recent slice of Chekhoviana at Liverpool’s Playhouse, Chekhov’s First Play, have temporarily bucked the trend and managed to use them to thrilling effect.

For theatregoers attuned to Blu Ray extras, the team have created a play, an adaption of the Russian master’s first extant play, a bloated juvenile fancy called Platonov, that arrives with its own director’s commentary. You sit in the stalls and after an amusing initial sound test are carried into the play with the director’s voice ringing in your ears.

His comments are invariably funny, full of sardonic self-doubt and plain bitchiness about this adaptation; he disaparages the actors’ skill; laments cutting far too many subplots and minor characters, and even talks over the key speeches in the first half etc. Some interesting points are raised along the way about textual details and Chekhov’s universal relevance i.e. his insights into property ownership, ennui, the hectoring older generation, but their absence in the performance before our eyes is explained away by the director’s unfortunate lack of a totalising artistic genius. He’s pretty much a failure, and with that confession his tone grows blackly comic, even dangerous.

In the first section (part? for a piece hellbent upturning theatre conventions, dare I say Act?), we have a rough version of the original: a mostly sedentary glimpse of bourgeois Russians taking tea in the country pile of Anna Petrovna. But the plot here, to be frank, is unimportant.

The original untitled manuscript, discovered by Soviet scholars in the 1920s, and only verified as Chekhov’s first work from letters by his brother, is a mess. At seven hours long, its melodramatic padding for a series of gunshots, itself something of a commonplace in nineteenth-century theatre. The only major crossover between this and Dead Centre’s heavily uncentered version is that the characters long for the arrival of the local Hamletesque rogue, Mikhail Platonov.

We do eventually see him but not in the form you’d expect. I’ll be vague to savour the excitement of all this but his arrival brings about a convulsion of everything we’ve seen go before. Tsarist Russia is changed for Tzarist Russia – a surreal medley of music, destruction and fourth-wall confusion. I’ll say no more on that.

Ultimately, it’s wonderful to see an adaptation that isn’t just time-travel Chekhov. What I mean by that is it’s not just a classic that’s been dialled into a phoney update, like 1920s flappers and gangsters or the 1980s and its culture of greed (why is it always usually these two?!). Dead Centre have twisted the original world and sent the inhabitants floating, with all their despair, unsatiated ambitions and frozen attitudes, into our present. It’s a fascinating experiment in intimacy.

The characters, all played superbly by the cast, look out at us, speak and serenade directly down the chunky headphones and into our ears.

Most critical accounts of the Chekhov will, sooner or later, describe his world famous tone, part tragedy and part light-hearted fancy. One of the great mood musicians in the lounge band of world culture, here we have the rhythms right before us.

This is a must hear piece of theatre.

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