Review: Chekhov Re-Cut: Platonov ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Review: Chekhov Re-Cut: Platonov

Chekhov Re-Cut: Platonov, by Anton Chekhov, adapted and directed by Simon Stone. Design by Evan Granger, lighting by Danny Pettingill, sound by Jared Lewis. With Jessamy Dyer, Amanda Falson, Angus Grant, Adrian Mulraney, Eryn-Jean Norvill, Meredith Penman, Simon Stone and Chris Ryan. The Hayloft Project @ The Hayloft, corner Harris and Whitehall Steets, Footscray, until March 16. Bookings 0435 165 117 or online

Platonov is Anton Chekhov’s first play and, in ways that recall Georg Büchner’s unfinished work Woycek, has a rather curious history. It was written in the 1880s when Chekhov was 20, living with his parents on the edge of the Black Sea in the village of Taganrog. He abandoned it when it was rejected by the Maly Theatre in Moscow and the play was forgotten until someone discovered the manuscript in a bank vault in 1923, 19 years after Chekhov’s death. It was first published in 1933, under the title Fatherlessness, but it didn’t premiere in Russia until 1957.

By all accounts, the original is a sprawling mess that runs for more than five hours. As the Russian critic Mikhail Gromov put it: "The play was put together with a profligacy that was inexcusable, and conceivable only in the writer's youth. At one and the same time it is a drama, a comedy and a vaudeville; or more accurately, it is not any one of these three. But that said, it is chaotic in a way that bore a remarkable resemblance to the reality of Russian life."

For a play generally regarded as juvenilia, Platonov is produced more often than you might expect. A full-length version was a hit at the 2002 Avignon Festival, and (perhaps ironically, given its rejection a century ago) the Maly Theatre of St Petersburg toured its celebrated production, now a decade old, to London last year. It inspired a celebrated film, An Unfinished Piece for Mechanical Piano, made by Nikita Mikhalkov in 1976, which in turn inspired Trevor Griffiths’ 1990 play, Piano. Michael Frayn adapted it in 1984, and David Hare in 2001. Which isn’t doing too badly.

Like Woycek, which was found in Büchner’s papers after his early death and has been the subject of endless dramaturgical speculation, it might be Platonov’s very disorder, this unfinished quality, which has ensured its continuing life more than a century later. Or perhaps the age has caught up with Chekhov’s instinctive dramaturgy: it could be that the play’s mimetic sense, the chaos that Gromov remarked as so realistic, appeals to contemporary sensibilities.

Certainly a sense of contemporary realism illuminates the Hayloft Theatre Project’s extraordinarily beautiful production, its first at its newly opened warehouse theatre in Seddon. As with this company’s impressive debut, a passionate production of Franz Wedekind’s Spring Awakening - itself opening at Belvoir St later this year - Chekhov Re-Cut: Platonov is elegantly poised between fidelity to the 19th century origin of the work and a very 21st century aesthetic.

Simon Stone’s adaptation cuts the play to a swift two and a half hours, with eight speaking parts instead of 20. I haven't read the original text, so I can’t comment on the details of the adaptation (in passing, it was brilliant to experience a Chekhov play with no idea of what was going to happen). But even so, Stone demonstrates – as he did with Spring Awakening – a sure instinct for filleting out essential action; and he certainly hasn’t messed with the original four act structure.

Platonov (Simon Stone) is the first of Chekhov’s disillusioned provincial intellectuals. He is the local school teacher, an idealist in his (very recent) youth, but already, in his late 20s, soured and bored by the comfortable meaninglessness of his life. He is fascinating because he is a totally passive protagonist: he permits events to happen, always taking the most yielding option, permitting the desires of others to dictate his flaccid will. For all his appearance of profundity, he is a man who takes on the colours of those around him. He most startling lack is an interior life: he is all surface, all reflection. And his inner emptiness has disastrous results for everyone around him.

None of the men in the play is immune to his charisma - even those he cuckolds still love him. And as he is desired by every woman in the play - even the chemistry student Maria, whom he treats with sadistic contempt - his love life is complicated. In a curious reversal of gender roles, he is the blank screen on which these women project their frustrated desires. He is a different lover to each of them – to Sascha, his wife, he is a faithful husband and father; to the general’s widow Anna (Meredith Penman) - an amazing character for the time, being both intellectually and sexually forceful - he is the image of a grand passion; to his former lover Sofia (Jessamy Dyer) he represents freedom from a stiflingly respectable marriage.

The play's melodramatic elements reflect the theatre of its time, but in this adaptation they are at once absurd and realistic, winding out of the tragic aimlessness of the characters' situations. Platonov demonstrates that Chekhov's gently merciless insights into human behaviour were there from the beginning: more than anything, it reminds you that in its less pleasant moments, life tends more to melodrama than to the grave horror of the tragic. Chekhov's enduring attraction lies in how he traces the absurd sorrow of modernity; he understood, with Oscar Wilde, that “the dreadful thing about modernity is that it puts tragedy into the raiment of comedy”.

The play is written with a youthful passion that makes it a peculiarly apt choice for this young company. Stone has collected a very fine cast, and elicits performances that impress on all levels - technical accomplishment, emotional accuracy, courage and nuance, the last being perhaps the most important element in acting Chekhov. They're so good that they rather show up Stone himself in the central role: although he is effective as Platonov, the original hollow man, he only just gets away with it, and certainly doesn't reach the lustre of his colleagues. The one problem with this production is that it's difficult to understand why Platonov is so irresistible: of course, it's understood that in a more exciting context he might not be desirable at all, that these destructive desires are frothed out of ennui; but as a man of surfaces he might glitter more fascinatingly. Stone might have to settle for merely being a brilliant adaptor and director.

Perhaps the greatest compliment you can pay the actors is that they aren’t overwhelmed by the set. Evan Granger’s design, sensuously lit with an air of fin de siecle decadence by Danny Pettingill, is spectacular. The huge stage is defined by the ruinous walls of an elegant house, and filled with about a foot of water, in which are placed the tables, chaise lounges and standard lamps of a 19th century bourgeois home. The immediate effect is jaw-droppingly beautiful, but the set is much more than a gorgeous background: the water becomes an expressive part of the emotional action in ways that recall (forgive me, but it’s true) how water is used in Tarkovsky's films. As the actors wade across the stage, the ripples create a constant susurrus, and the splashing underlines the violence or gentleness of bodily gestures, just as the water's reflections suggest the deceptive, shifting surfaces of Chekhov’s characters.

It's an exquisite production and, as everyone is telling everyone else, you'd be mad to miss it. On a purely personal note, I'm delighted that it's happening on my side of town, and I'm hoping that all exciting theatre will now move westwards. The one disadvantage of the Hayloft space is the band that plays next door, mostly destroying Jared Lewis's delicate sound design all through the first half. Again, it's a tribute to the performers that they were both audible and unfazed, even weaving the ambient noise into the dialogue, and the band wasn't nearly as intrusive as it might have been.

I'm told that the space will be soundproofed soon: in the meantime, don't let a little unprogrammed music put you off. With Platonov, The Hayloft Project proves that it's the real thing, and that it's here to stay. This is a show that people will be talking about years from now.

Pictures: (Top) Chris Ryan and Meredith Penman. (Below) The cast of Platonov by The Hayloft Project. Photos: Jeff Busby


Anonymous said...

Lovely review (and history of the piece), Alison. We seem to have had almost identical reactions, our reviews aligning in a surprising number of places.

Perhaps worth noting is the fact that Stone was actually not supposed to play Platonov. The original lead, whomever it was, pulled out a week or so before the piece opened, and the director was forced to step in (to his chagrin, apparently). Which isn't to say that your comments on his performance aren't valid. But it's worth noting nonetheless.

Alison Croggon said...

I wasn't privy to that bit of news, Matt - thanks for sharing it. I am now deeply impressed that he managed as well as he did!

Anonymous said...

not what I heard...which was that Mr Stone sacked two actors in the weeks leading into the production and took on the role himself...

Anonymous said...

I think it's important to note that the actor who was playing Platonov left as a result of a mutual decision between him and the director. Stone then chose to step into the role rather than cancel the production...

Alison Croggon said...

I rather think the back story is irrelevant to what's been achieved here. Rehearsal rooms are full of these conflicts and they shouldn't be used to traduce achievement. It's a remarkable production and all credit to Simon Stone, who deserves it.

Anonymous said...

Matt said it already but...forget the back-story. Stone was the same in Pinter's Ashes: a benign black-hole. I agree with your original assessment Alison and hope that in the future he focuses on his obvious talent for producing, for which he is being rightly praised.