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Chekhov’s First Play | Battersea Arts Centre | Review

Chekhov's First Play, Dead Centre, Credit Adam Trigg
Chekhov’s First Play, Dead Centre, Credit Adam Trigg

Chekhov’s First Play presented by Dead Centre got off to a dangerous start with the somewhat hubristic claim in the programme that they aim to improve on Chekhov by succeeding in making a show ‘about everything and the totality of living’, where Chekhov had distinctly failed. Even more dangerous was the attempt to appeal to audience members who were drawn to this show by their love of Chekhov. But the gamble completely and wholeheartedly paid off. In the way of good satire, this was a piece created by people who share my love for Chekhov. Ben Kidd and Bush Moukarzel were able to dismantle his work so effectively because of their very apparent, extensive knowledge and respect for his work. To be entirely fair, Chekhov’s first play, usually referred to as ‘Plotonov’ is widely considered an unstagable mess – too many characters, too much to say, too tangled, but the truth is, Dead Centre aren’t really just talking about this piece of Juvenilia.

The play opens with the director, Bush Moukarzel (the actual director), entering the stage to explain to a baffled audience why they have been provided with headphones. Chekhov is tricky, and this play is trickier than most, so the director promises to provide a live-action director’s commentary. He’s wielding ‘Chekhov’s gun’. I’m already intrigued. The action begins and it is unmistakably Chekhov – a glamorous widow of a certain age, a doctor making advances, an elaborate Russian estate. Widow and doctor are awaiting the arrival of a mysterious figure, bored out of their minds and philosophising wistfully. The acting is spot on, very Russian: a unique combination of brooding and over the top. The set is phenomenal – Andrew Clancy has built a Russian Mansion onstage; there is a long table, adorned with a customary Samovar; there are flowers and deck chairs.

Moukarzel’s commentary is inspired – searingly intelligent, witty satire that anyone who has studied Chekhov couldn’t help but be tickled by. He runs through all the themes we are told to look for in Chekhov: death, disillusionment, a crumbling aristocracy, time, a subtext. This is very much theatre for theatre buffs and lit. nerds. But as he runs on, his commentary becomes increasingly frantic and exasperated, as the actors skip pages of text and ignore his careful direction. He rants about his artistic vision and frustration with actors getting pregnant and forgetting their lines. This part very much speaks to anyone who has ever acted or directed – we are drawn to knowing laughter by a painful shared experience. Just as it begins to feel that the joke is wearing thin, the phantom of Chekhov’s gun, for which we are repeatedly promised an explanation, is fired. The director has shot himself. In the first act? Is the show over?

This is when things really shift to another level. All the characters turn to the audience, repeating the phrase “I haven’t been feeling myself recently. By which I mean ever.” From this point, the Chekhovian dialogue begins to fall away and become mixed with contemporary speech; a massive wrecking ball crashes through the mansion and the setting falls away around it; the long dresses and waistcoats come off and Miley Cyrus comes on. Without giving away too much, Dead Centre ingeniously represent the joy to be found in Chekhov, and theatre more broadly, when you strip away some of the expectation. When you take away the director’s commentary, the dry critical essays that dictate how we read and just watch Chekhov, what is revealed is a play about everything and the totality of living in the world.

Most importantly, it’s about now. The then tuberculosis, an epidemic devastating the population, is the now cancer. The soulful, frustrated actors we see everywhere in Chekhov become a single sad wannabe reduced to doing voice-overs for an Irish bank and a rich man who wants to buy the estate and turn it into apartments – that’s straight up Chekhov and straight up now. Dead Centre reveal Chekhov’s relevance to everything that’s happening right now and everything that each one of us is feeling. “I can’t imagine owning anything” they repeat. Nor can I – I can’t afford to. They take us right back to the joy of literature, of theatre, of stories, when we’re allowed to enjoy them in our own way, in their purest form and so they make us, each of us, the protagonists of our own stories. Clever.

As such this is a delicious play for Chekhov geeks, who don’t mind poking a bit of good-humoured fun at their beloved; for theatre enthusiasts; for intellectuals. There are many niche jokes for all of them. But it’s also a play for everyone (especially anyone who had to endure The Seagull at A-Level and never quite got it). So that’s basically everyone. Go and see it.

4 stars

Review by Rachel Sparkes

Dublin’s award-winning Dead Centre fragment and rebuild Chekhov’s earliest work in Chekhov’s First Play, making its London premiere at Battersea Arts Centre’s reborn Grand Hall this autumn (31 Oct to 10 Nov). Hilarious and absurd, Chekhov’s First Play takes a wrecking ball to the great playwright and performance itself, with an increasingly fraught director’s commentary delivered over headphones, an unstable set and a largely missing main character.

When he was just 18, Chekhov wrote a play which has long been considered unstageable – it has no title, a huge number of characters, and lasts for over six hours. The story – about a loose group of friends meeting up that becomes a chaotic, philosophical lament for a changing world – was never performed during his lifetime.

In Chekhov’s First Play, Dead Centre takes this text as a jumping-off point as they try and take on Chekhov’s ambition: to put the world on stage and see what it looks like. The show combines the action on stage with a director’s commentary presented via headphones, by a director who feels increasingly fraudulent as he watches his production – a group of characters in 19th Century Russia who do very little except eat, drink, talk, and wait for the main character to arrive. However, when that character finally arrives, they have no idea what is going on.

Dead Centre and Battersea Arts Centre present
Chekhov’s First Play
Wednesday 31 October to Saturday 10 November
Text by Anton Chekhov, Bush Moukarzel and Ben Kidd
Direction by Ben Kidd and Bush Moukarzel

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