Taken collectively, Chekhov’s short stories are an impassioned protest against the depravation inflicted by those in authority upon the weakest members of society; those with no voice or recourse to justice. Director and writer Matthew Parker’s absurdist interpretation of one of the longest of these stories, Ward No. 6 – first performed at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2009 and now revived at the Camden People’s Theatre – releases the kinetic energy of Chekhov’s words in a production that is often as exhilarating to watch as it is disturbing.
A feeling of growing pressure, of the calm before a storm, is present from the moment that the audience takes its seats. The play opens on a still, dimly lit set. In each corner of the stage is a wooden bench upon which someone sleeps, fidgeting, under a sheet. Inset in the walls are jumbles of books, some open, made unreachable by the chicken wire that covers them. Paranoid and fanatical ramblings are scrawled across every surface. The only sound is that of distant bird song, which becomes more and more oppressive as it goes on. But then the uneasy sleepers, patients in an abandoned mental ward in nineteenth-century Russia, awake and this inhospitable space explodes into frenzied, feverish life.
It’s a nice decision by Parker to reframe the story of the downfall of Ward No. 6’s protagonist, Doctor Ragin (Harry Lobek), as a bizarre, quasi-ceremonial role-play acted out by the hospital’s abused, half-crazed inmates. This forcefully brings home Chekhov’s point that, in effect, there is no life outside the asylum; the distinction between sane and insane, between the philosophical pontificating of Ragin and the ritualised gibberish spouted by the patients he becomes obsessed with, is no greater than covering a dirty hospital gown with a coat. And there’s a fearful symmetry between this conceit and the doctor’s eventual fate: locked up and abandoned in the same ward as those he’s been studying as a result of the machinations of his superiors.
This wouldn’t be as effective as it is if Parker had adopted a flat-footed or po-faced approach to the staging and choreography. As it stands, this production is like an adrenaline shot. It moves with manic energy, sweeping up the audience with it as it translates into dance and striking imagery the absurdity that binds Chekhov’s sentences together and from which Ward No. 6 derives much of its power. Benches are upended into shrines, piles of books become unstable stepping stones and painted backdrops entrap the unwary. Some well executed sight gags keep the production whizzing along, helped by the occasional burst of Russian choral music which prompts a frenzy of folk-dancing that is strangely graceful in its lunacy.
The cast, the majority of which have returned from the original Edinburgh run, are strong. They negotiate the small stage space with ease, handle the shifts between roles confidently and work well together. Tentatively tugging at each other’s sleeves, scribbling on the floor or locked together in hysterical embrace, the mix of awkwardness and need they evoke as the patients has an effective, childish intensity. The clown-like white make-up they wear heightens this air of desperation, turning them into gaunt, haunted figures who could have stepped straight out of Munch’s The Scream.
Of the four actors, Charlotte Blake particularly impresses with her physical range and her comic timing; either as one of the inmates, rocking, gurning and beating her chest, or as Ragin’s housekeeper, scuttling beetle-like across the stage with shoulders hunched, she contorts her body to create characters whose grotesqueness provokes laughter and repulsion at the same time. Meanwhile, newcomer Oliver Lavery is compelling as the brilliant but deranged patient Gromov and enjoyably vulpine as Hobotov, the ambitious young doctor who manoeuvres Ragin out of the hospital and, ultimately, into the madhouse.
For his part, Lobek successfully conveys the horror and disbelief of a man who realises, too late, that grand talk about mental self-sufficiency and inner freedom means nothing when the door to the ward is locked and no one’s listening any more.