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My Mocking Happiness and Life’s Little Nothings

My Mocking Happiness at St. James Theatre London
My Mocking Happiness at St. James Theatre.
Photo credit Andrei Riabin

My Mocking Happiness
After the first play of their season, ’Ward of the Manor’, this was a complete change of pace, being more of a reading to the audience, without any real conflict or drama. It’s a stroll through Chekhov’s life through his letters to his wife, his brother, and Lidia Stakhievna, a woman friend who was an influence in his life and work.

There are some interesting moments with his description of his famous visit to Sakhalin Island (complete with some chains lying on the stage in case we didn’t understand) and his letters about how his plans were caught up in the need for him to treat a cholera epidemic. There are also mentions of the plays, mainly ‘Three Sisters,’ whose failure at the first performance led him to say “Never again shall I write or direct plays.

The programme covers a great deal of material; the piece sits awkwardly between a reading and a dramatisation. The actors, too seemed to me uncomfortable and everyone seemed to be trying too hard.

The set, a wall of birch trees, is evocative, and there are, as one would expect, telling observations: ‘We drink champagne, the servants serve it – this is a sin against the Holy Ghost’ and the painfully timed repetition – ‘I am aloof from my own life’, ‘An actress has to be cool as a demon’, ‘The individual salvation lies with the individual all over Russia.

Several times, the word ‘gooseberries’ reminded us of one of Chekhov’s greatest stories, although the story itself was not mentioned. Lines like ‘my life goes nowhere’, ‘The people in my life experience not one drop of happiness‘, which constantly return to his poverty and feeling of futility turned one’s mind back to the plays and particularly the stories and their emotional source. These musings through letters and journals would be interesting to read on the page, but they have not got enough drama or sense of process or conflict to be anything more than mildly tedious on the stage.

+++++++

Life's Little Nothings at St. James Theatre.
Life’s Little Nothings at St. James Theatre. Photo credit Fotostudiya

Life’s Little Nothings
In contrast, the third programme of short Chekhov sketches, ‘Life’s Little Nothings’; is a total triumph: charming, touching funny and despairing, all at the same time -moments of life that catch the heart even while one is laughing. The five pieces are all short, Vaudeville-style sketches, but each of them has a core of pain beneath the light touch.

From the opening moment, when the whole cast walk across the stage in character we know we are in for a special experience; it’s not that they do anything extraordinary, it is that the ability to communicate a character with such detail and economy in a simple walk, is itself extraordinary.

The sketches are all very different, except for the consumption of vodka but what unites them (aside from the vodka) is their humanity, even at the most slapstick moments. The pieces are light, but the pain beneath makes them throb with life, indeed, the brilliance of the performance lies in the little moments that enclose a world of relations, reactions and suggest, a whole life with its past events and even future possibilities.

The acting is flawless: the outstanding quality of this company is the way they find physical expression of emotional states – unexpected turns, a movement of the hands to show unspoken thought – and all of it is seamless.

The first play ‘Daughter of Albion’ was based on the simplest of premises: a governess and two gentlemen are fishing. The woman speaks no Russian, the gentlemen speak no English. Simple. And yet, as she sat tightly wound in apparent concentration on the fish, and they proceeded to hit the vodka is a serious way, the unspoken stress between the two tightened until it finally snapped. The drunken progression was an immaculate and hilarious progression of musical burps and belches, while the woman remained rigid, and I was on the edge of my seat wanting to know what she was thinking. Even the process of fishing became interesting as it was so perfectly done – every small twitch of the line was superbly acted.

The evening continued on the same level; with ‘A Tripping Tongue’, in which the exquisitely beautiful Anna Grynchak gave herself away with every enchanting little laugh and flutter of the hands, but even more by her tiny pauses and almost unnoticeable intakes of breath. Her husband, Viktor Aldoshin, listened, magnificently impassive, until the unexpected, shocking and painful end, when he took out his reaction on his gift hat.

Aborigines’ had enough material for a full length play or a novel in the interactions of an idle landowner, his accidental guest and his unseen neighbours on a hot day in the provinces. As Yury Diak tried with increasing lack of success (and desire) to extricate himself from this hospitality his predicament was painful and hilarious at the same time.

The acting was a continual delight. There were so many perfect moments that I stored them away to recall later. It was true realism (as opposed to naturalism), that is, accurate observation extended into a poetic truth.

I could have seen this programme again and I only hope the company return to London so more people can have this pleasure. The ‘Little Nothings’ of life, seen by a genius, are not nothing at all.

4 stars

Reviews by Kate Beswick

Lesya Ukrainika National Academic Theatre of Russian Drama
Director Mikhail Reznikovich
Directors: Irina Barkovskaya and Leonid Ostropolsky (My Mocking Happiness) and Cyrill Kashlikov (Life’s Little Nothings)

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