DramaNorth WestReview

Chekhov’s First Play – The Playhouse, Liverpool

Adaptor/Director: Ben Kidd and Bush Moukarzel

Reviewer: Imogen Rowe

Chekhov developed a particular style in his playwriting that can be seen to evolve throughout the course of his career. Coming in at the very start, Dead Centre distil and expound the essence of Chekhov’s style, themes and characters, taking what is thought to be Chekhov’s first, unfinished, play and using the foundations to create a piece of theatre that is both compelling and provoking.

By choosing the first of Chekhov’s plays, the still fairly unknown Platonov, Kidd and Moukarzel trust their audiences to be both receptive and perceptive towards their adaptation. Immediately different from a classical piece is the use of audio equipment – every audience member is given the use of a headset, through which they can hear a deep soundscape to accompany the action on stage. The headsets also allows the directors to give their audience a delightfully funny commentary on the classical drama that appears on stage.

This is only the beginning of the inversions and subversions that are about to take place. The first act is staged as one may expect a classical Chekovian play to be staged; Edwardian fashion, a large naturalistic set and props, albeit with a running commentary of everything the characters are not saying, or the themes that should be noted at various points. The set-up of a classical drama punctured with this satirical commentary puts them in the perfect position to smash it, literally, with a flaming wrecking ball before reassembling the warped shards into something much more meaningful, and uses the structure Chekhov became known for as a foundation on which to comment on things of actual importance.

Perhaps the most palpable and arresting choice Dead Centre have made is to exchange the central character, Platonov, for a void. Instead of the central pillar of the play, a character who is shaped and formed in the audience’s eye before he even sets foot on stage, there is nothing; an empty space, waiting to be filled by an unlikely subject, with no knowledge or prior intention towards the story. The central character was a man onto which his peers would pour their feelings; he was a receptacle, a thing to love or hate, to have or to kill, a feature which eventually destroys him. By removing the written character and replacing it with an open possibility, other characters are given more import, and the whole play more dexterity.

We can throw around terms like ‘postmodern’ or ‘metatheatre’, but even though this performance is entirely self-aware it has none of the pretensions that often associate themselves with those terms; it is so simple in its absurdity that it burns off the layer of paunch dialogue and unnecessary pretence to leave the rich subtext and valuable people that lie beneath. The first act’s ‘director’s commentary’ is deliciously observant of the workings of theatre, with comments like ‘He is sad. So I put him in the corner away from everyone’ not only making it funny and inclusive, something Chekhov’s shrubby dialogue cannot always do, but also poignant.

Often with absurdity it is hard to follow or maintain an interest in something that seems to carry so little sense, but this adaptation allowed every character a through line and an identity. It seems rather that an absurd lens is placed over the Chekovian drama which serves to illuminate the mechanics that may otherwise have been lost.

When Chekhov’s plays were received, they became caught in a place between realism and absurdity – this production lands stoutly somewhere off centre, completely aware of what it is doing.  It is active and immersive, and encourages investment, and perhaps most importantly it is not difficult to take something away from it. Dead Centre have created a masterpiece of absurd realism that somehow seems to make more sense of its themes than Chekhov himself.

Runs until Saturday 11t May 2019 | Image: Adam Trigg

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The North West team is under the editorship of John Roberts. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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