Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Theatre Review: Young Chekhov

Saturday was a glorious, sunny day in London; possibly the last real day of summer. Because nothing says summer like angsty Russians, I decided to spend it sat inside watching over seven and a half hours of Chekhov.

Unless you’ve been living under a theatrical rock, you’ll have realised by now that I’m talking about the NT transfer of Chichester Festival Theatre’s Young Chekhov, and a three show day thereof to boot.

I’m not a natural Chekhov fan tbh. I find I have to work quite hard to be engaged in ‘period’ Russian drama, as my achingly slow progress through my current quest to read War and Peace will attest. However Young Chekhov is utterly brilliant, living up to its considerable hype completely. The three plays presented - Platonov, Ivanov and The Seagull - show that there’s much more to Chekhov than suicides and people with undecipherable names, though there are plenty of both, and I was really pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed (possibly the wrong word) the whole day.

The first play in the trilogy is, perhaps slightly unfortunately, also the best: Platonov. For me, this was a revelation. Bluntly, I didn’t know that Chekhov did comedy or at least comedy that isn’t just satire. There is satire in Platonov - notably around the corruption and greed of the older generation - but mostly the comedy is much broader, occasionally even slapstick. More importantly though, it’s very, very funny. I had no idea I could love a Chekhov play but, man, I loved Platonov.

Platonov also gives us our first introduction to what is arguably the star of Young Chekhov: the absolutely sky high production values. I don’t like throwing around the P word in reviews, but I think these productions might actually be, technically, perfect. The staging in particular is extraordinary. I’ve seen some amazing things done on/with/to the Olivier’s stage but filling it with water to create a series of lakes and streams under an elevated set is by some measure the most amazing. The staging is particularly dramatically used in Platonov, with the rapid arrival of a railway line in logic defying speed. Director Jonathan Kent and his team of designers must win some/all of the awards.

Another common theme of Young Chekhov’s success that also emerges in Platonov is the strength of the cast; across the three plays surely the best ensemble in London right now by some distance. In Platonov though it’s James McArdle in the title role who runs away with the show; a perfect (there’s that word again) mix of self loathing, sass and lazy charisma who handles the comedy like a pro. If his performance doesn’t make it into my top ten come the end of the year I’ll be very surprised. Nina Sosanya provides another highlight as a fiery, feisty and fierce Anna Petrovna, one of Platonov’s many love interests and a perfect foil for McArdle’s chaotic charm. The whole cast is a riot of energy and fun though and Platonov is a genuinely outstanding production.

Ivanov comes next in the trilogy and, for my money, is by far the weakest of the three plays. It’s very much a play of two halves: a raucous satire on the morals of ‘modern’ Russian society which is written with so little subtlety that I came very close to hating it and the more angsty, pensive drama which the titular character embodies and which I found much more effective, if a little ‘Chekhov by numbers’. A slightly simpler staging, though still with the fantastic water effects, and a much stiller energy pervade here framing a fantastically strong central performance from Geoffrey Streatfeild, one of my absolute faves. Working with a character who is surely one of the least well rounded and least sympathetic in all of theatre, Streatfeild captures Ivanov’s sense of impotent rage and self disgust so well. The scene where he finally explodes at his long suffering wife (Sosanya’s second iteration of Anna Petrovna) is electric. There is strong support from Jonathan Coy as Ivanov’s friend/new love interest’s father and by far the most interesting character in the play, caught between a wife he can’t stand and a society that won’t let him escape her, desperately trying to do the right thing for his daughter and his friend. I will never love Ivanov, the play or the character, but I’m glad that I got to see this production of it. A production this good can really elevate any source material.

And finally, The Seagull. For me, this was the nearest to what I was expecting Young Chekhov to be: angsty but intelligent and with the sort of interesting ideas behind it that I felt were missing in Ivanov. Primarily, this is a play about the old crushing the hopes and prospects of the young - depressingly relevant in Brexit Britain. It’s also a play about people refusing to realise their own mediocrity, insert your own Andrea Leadsom/Michael Gove joke here I suppose. Again, fantastic production values and acting abound with the sublime Anna Chancellor stealing scenes left, right and centre as the manipulative, arch and ultimately quite tragic Arkadina. Geoffrey Streatfeild is also great again, completing his double header of unsympathetic men as the really quite unpleasant but nonetheless compelling Tregorin. And shoutout to Olivia Vinall who clocks up her third romantic lead of the day - someone get that woman some wine! - with her best performance as an achingly sad Nina.

Overall, then, three fantastic productions - one genuinely outstanding - that are all 100% worth your time. Even if you think, like me, that you don’t really like Chekhov these productions are technically good enough to merit seeing them anyway. But hurry up, tickets are almost gold dust at this point. And justifiably so.

Young Chekhov is at the Olivier Theatre at the NT until October 8th.

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