“If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off”.
Chekhov’s gun, a dramatic principle warning against extraneous detail, may have been hard learned; the playwright’s first full-length manuscript arrived at eight hours of vodka-fuelled seductions and suicides. The play, abandoned in a bank vault until discovered 16 years after his death without its title page, has often been named after the main character Platinov, while scholars identify it as a drama mentioned in his letters closely translated as Fatherlessness.
The orphan play is fostered by Dead Centre, a company that has built up a fascinating vocabulary of absurdist visuals and coups de théâtre. Appropriately, co-director Bush Moukarzel’s funny and fatuous preamble, last seen in his previous offering Lippy, is now embraced as a director’s commentary. Through headphones we listen as he tries to navigate us through the chaotic drama, his voice lodged in our heads by Jimmy Eadie’s influential sound design.
The red curtain rises on Andrew Clancy’s epic set: the courtyard of a palatial country estate with red walls and ghostly light emanating from its white-framed windows. Shrewd doctor Nicolai (Rory Nolan) is eying both the property and its landlord Anna Petrovna (Annie Ryan). The fantastic broad strokes of Nolan’s comedy are known, having effectively played the range of stage Irishmen from Myles na gCopaleen to Ross O’Carroll–Kelly. The long awaited return to acting of Ryan, director of the Commedia-influenced company Corn Exchange, sees her effortlessly assume the elegant postures of costume drama.
Meanwhile, Moukarzel’s commentary continues to meddle, throwing in theatre trivia between dialogue. He describes Platinov as a Hamlet-like figure that the other characters talk about all the time. Yet, even when all his aristocratic admirers join the scene, the protagonist remains to be seen.
This is the crux of Dead Centre’s intervention, in what is essentially a theatre of meaninglessness. Where Samuel Beckett staged the lack-of-reality, its leaky atmosphere sealed by sustaining rituals, Moukarzel and co-director Ben Kidd have fun in feeling out the edges around an absence. In Lippy it was the mysterious truth behind a real-life suicide pact, choreographed out of our grasps through elusive stage pictures. Here, it is Chekhov’s protagonist, which has been argued not to be a character such as Platanov but life itself.
Chekhov’s celebrated naturalism is ushered in, not by Stanislavsky’s legendary calculations of cigarette drags or smacking lips at the dinner table but by pregnant actors and unremembered lines. In short, real life gets in the way. The director’s voice in our ear becomes discouraged, then monstrous, finally detonating the drama in an act of dramaturgical sabotage: he fires the gun in the first act.
Clancy’s set is suddenly set for destruction: a fucking wrecking ball drops from the ceiling and knocks down the upper wall of the estate! The limits of demolition are amazingly tested, as scenery is set on fire and dismantled with a jackhammer.
Dead Centre are damn good at these reversals, effectively changing the energy in the room, and this fallout is simultaneously reverent and irreverent to its source. Exchanging 19th century picnicking for a Celtic Tiger party adorned with cocaine and construction tape, they attack a staple of modern criticism when reviving a classic: what is its relevance today? The constantly evolving scene of brainless minutiae, wonderfully choreographed by Liv O’Donoghue, even shows a Messenger character in Chekhov’s play delivering a Chinese takeaway.
With these explicit contemporary allusions, the company critiques the strategy with which we deem a revival as ‘good’. But they also do a service to that coveted sub-text of Chekhov’s naturalism: the inner world of the characters. Nolan peels off his fake moustache, a sad symptom of Nicolai’s cancer sickness. Rebecca O’Mara poignantly revolves the action as Platinov’s wife Sasha, spelling out her fear of a husband admired by the world.
Even more honourable, Dead Centre convey Chekhov’s gun: when hung on the wall with the rest of his awards, the untitled drama is irreplaceable. The meek masculine figure of Sergei, tragicomically played by Dylan Tighe, turns a pistol on himself but shoots down a seagull instead, a symbol of doom from a later drama, drawn here as a sign of forthcoming glory. The sledgehammer bursting through the walls of Anna Petrovna’s estate carries the same hack of the axe in The Cherry Orchard, with golden light through the cracks illuminating the crushing defeat on Ryan’s face.
In these compelling set pieces, Chekhov’s later plays are all indebted to his first.