It’s not Chekhov’s First Play. Not really. Dead Centre has taken Chekhov’s play – started when he was 18 and generally thought to be unstageable – and broken it down to its constituent parts. What it rebuilds from these fragments is a whole lot greater than the sum of its parts, and offers an intriguing, brilliant and occasionally baffling hour.
With text by Chekhov, Bush Moukarzel and Ben Kidd, this is a production that is simultaneously proud to show its workings while also treading a very fine (and very clever) meta-theatrical line. Most of the time, this is hugely successful, and manages to provoke at every turn.
It’s a massively brave production. Dead Centre has not only taken an “unstageable” play and put it onstage, but also grappled with all of the huge ideas at the centre of Chekhov’s thinking. The play takes Chekhovian themes of life, death, ennui, depression, unhappy marriages and a longing for change, and manages to both explore them and to look at them from the outside.
The first half of the production is a straightforward production of the play, complete with the expected thematic concerns. Widowed Anna Petrovna can’t afford the upkeep on her giant house; her bore of a benefactor is trying to woo her; the man she loves is married to someone else etc etc. The deliciousness of the first half comes almost entirely from Bush Moukarzel, the director, who hides in the wings, commentating on the action. The audience wear headphones, and can hear the acerbic comments over the dialogue.
The commentary is very, very clever. Moukarzel offers his directorial opinions on the quality of the actors, he explains subtext and metaphors to the audience, he gossips about the cast. It’s extremely funny, and although the jokes are knowing and poke fun at the earnestness of Chekhov, it never feels patronising or overly smug.
The twist, when it comes, is also very, very clever. Chekhov’s rather tedious rich people are at a party, waiting for the one person they actually like to arrive. When he does, the ladies vie for his attention and the men are jealous of him. The Chekhovian language breaks down into contemporary dialogue; a Chinese takeaway is ordered; the production shifts.
I don’t want to spoil it because the twist halfway through is what makes this production such a joy, but I urge you to see it. It’s a hugely erudite piece of work, that wears its research and its knowledge lightly. It manages to utterly break apart the text and ideas of the original, without trashing or belittling them. It’s a kind-hearted take-down of what seems to be a rambling and convoluted play – the pretentious director’s commentary is a welcome hand to guide us through the ridiculous plot and huge themes that Chekhov is trying to grapple with in a fairly teenage way.
It never feels like it’s taking itself too seriously, while at the same time it’s not just a tongue-in-cheek send-up of Chekhov. It’s a production of contradictions, as Dead Centre holds conflicting ideas and perceptions in balance. I’m still unpicking its multitude of ideas and allusions, still trying to follow their working the get to their conclusion.
And if that’s not enough to make you curious to see it, it also features the best use of Miley Cyrus’s Wrecking Ball that you will see on a stage this year.
Chekhov’s First Play was on as part of Mayfest 2016. Click here for more of their programme.