Chekhov’s First Play is a reimagining of a Shakespeare play, but with an entirely different goal!
As the lights go down in the auditorium, we put on headphones waiting to be received by the director (Ben Kidd) who explains the concept of the piece: Kidd will give us a running commentary while the actors give us their best Russian period Chekhov acting. Of course, this leads to a slightly The Play That Goes Wrong atmosphere as actors forget lines, important characters are cut, and characters fail to grasp the essence of the character according to the director who is currently commenting on his actors’ flunks which “didn’t happen during the rehearsal process”. However, during this comical debauchery, there are some moments of genuine pathos as Liam Carney sheds his clothes as Nikolay Ivanovich has a heart attack and gives us a new dimension to think about, as death is such a mysterious subject.
Throughout this opening sequence, we are reconnected with Chekhov’s classic passing of time as the house starts to crumble and time is mentioned more times than I care to remember, on top of that the director is cursing at the repetitive use of time and regretting ever considering this play as the topic for his current project. The games involved in the commentary are very funny and easy to connect with whether you are Chekhov professor or a studying vet. Though, I wouldn’t advise this theatre trip if you genuinely want to understand the ins and outs of Chekhov! The cast (Andrew Bennett, Tara Egan-Langley, Clara Simpson, Dylan Tighe, Breffni Holahan and Liam Carney) explore Chekhov’s text with clear gestures accurate to the period.
As the play progresses, Kidd, similar to a lot of Chekhov’s characters, “needs a break” and leaves his actors to continue without the commentary. During this, the period and honesty of the text is lost, as the characters start modernising the meaning and supposedly making the story more accessible. This is easily enjoyable, as Chekhov’s party scenario becomes club like with an ensemble dance to a distorted ‘wrecking ball’, maintaining the serious facade and fashion of the time.
What happens in the final half is entirely unexpected as a supposed member of the audience is beckoned onto the stage to cover the (pinnacle) character, Platonov, who is referenced at least a hundred times up until now. What unfolds next is intimately and innovatively unique as we are essentially being brought up on stage by the representation of this similarly headphone-wearing, blissfully unaware individual being dragged around the world of (the first play – Platonov, wild honey) interacting with each character explaining their relationship, their problems and their desires with this supposed audience member. It really makes you feel like you are the character of Platonov and it makes you want to help the characters resolve their problems, whether that is with their mental health, love life of similarly morbid existences.
The ultimate event follows as each character’s thoughts smoothly follow round the table, exploring the important question of the purpose of existence. Upon the return of Kidd with his head bandaged exactly as Konstantin’s, he explains that there is more to live for and becoming once again the voice inside the innocent audience members’ heads and then committing an act of irony very similar to Robert Icke’s adaptation of Ibsen’s Wild Duck.
Chekhov’s first play is gripping and logically illogical. Having studied Chekhov, I find it just as compelling as a hard-hitting piece of his work, just in a completely different way. At the same time, if you understand Chekhov’s themes then the comedy is elevated and even funnier than a lot of the big west end comedies.
Kidd finds a way to accessibly re-contextualise a piece, whose writer was fighting against form and identity, and give it something interesting making it worth watching whilst still managing to leave us with an important message arising from the tragedy of Chekhov’s doomed characters. A classically classy clamour of a show, definitely worth a watch!
Chekhov’s First Play is playing at the Battersea Arts Centre until 10 November. For more information and tickets, click here.