Theatre often struggles with being actually funny. Genuinely consistently funny. Always tasked with being more than funny, lines are trod and compromises made. It’s perhaps instructive that the philosopher Zupančič reckoned “the comic universe – much more than the tragic universe – builds within the horizon of immanence”. There is something about theatre’s manner of transcendence that so often thwarts what is immediately funny. With its rhetorical oddities, its conventions, etiquettes and groundrules of fabrication; its sense of history and revival; its gauche distance from the everyday, theatre comes off second best to the other media that have more successfully colonised naturalism and wit.
Consequently if you want middling-sort weaksauce, mis-hewn jokes, missed punchlines, and awkward exaggerations the theatre is widely regarded as the place to serve you. If you prefer your comedy less to hit the gut than to the amuse the bouche, theatrical gruel is considered an excellent choice. So many comic lines on the contemporary stage come off like a fart in the forest, a quiet and lost moan devoid of life-affirming spark. There are countless instances of physical comedy that would be considered artless by an eight-year-old producer on You’ve Been Framed, peekaboo for the middle-aged. At the other pole there is a certain “literariness” which will fearlessly flirt with lameness in the seeking of a deft pun, court a wan smile with wordplay, tease out a subtle irony and then fall on its knees in front of its own magnificence as if it were fellating a monument to the unknown joke. A wry chuckle will most often be favoured over the blazing-tinder bark; the smirk over the grin; the sigh over the snort. If the human is an animal for whom laughter is, ultimately, an anarchic triumph over death, a theatre audience are like sheep orderly herded onto a train to the woods, killed and fleeced, never to hear the crack of a decent fart.
Dan Rebellato, then, is that rare beast – a funny playwright whose humour contains that satiric spark of connection with contemporary, and is giftedly rounded. Acerbic and clever, gutsy and genuinely felt, it flits deftly between agonising irony and chipper farce as it takes on social media, fashion, futurology and gastronomy and reduces them all to banalised rubble. Hegel always maintained that Christianity was the funniest joke of all – an all-powerful God played by a long-suffering bearded dude – an instant genre classic. Chekhov in Hell plays on a similar discrepancy, the great historical literary figure thrust into a world where homes are cost-effectively designed by Xbox software, where medical care is mostly about litigation, where declaring yourself a Belieber on Twitter is the high water mark of cultural engagement.
The production is slick and neat, and Dizzee Rascal’s Bonkers comes as a particularly well-judged piece of music. The cast is rangey and capable, playing the variety of comic characters with clipped reduction; Emily Raymond’s’s social worker a particular highlight, played to a shudderingly banal tee. And while the characters are recognisable stereotypes, they are given new flavours by the hard cutting irony that hangs from the critique. This irony however fails to sustain, and the piece becomes more a series of sketches, awkwardly buttonholed by a violent gangster plot, which remains tantalisingly un-mined for its moral implications. Flatly gentle Simon Scardifield as Chekhov is a poetic Borat, less a character than a silent repository for bourgeois anxieties. At points his refain “shto eto znachit” (what does it mean) becomes a modern lament for meaning, at others it echoes a philosophic weariness with the tangle of postmodernity. And while it would be unfair to ask Chekhov in Hell for a programme in the interstices of its satire, Chekhov’s beatific absence ultimately becomes too easy a hook. Shto eto znachit, indeed.