Chekhov’s First Play
Brisbane Festival & Dead Centre
Brisbane Powerhouse Powerhouse Theatre
September 21 – 23 2016
Reviewed by Meredith Walker
From its at-door sign warning of loud, sudden noises, coarse language, nudity, sexual references, pyrotechnics and smoking on stage, it is easy to recognise that Dead Centre’s Chekhov’s First Play is going to be take audiences far from the usual Chekov places. Yet still, in its disassembling of the great Russian playwright’s work, as well as theatre itself, the play takes its audiences to some surprising but ultimately superb places.
The show begins somewhat traditionally, apart from the fact that audience members are all wearing headphones in order to obtain Bush Moukarzel’s audio director’s commentary. This allows, he claims, for him to unclutter the complicated work and, accordingly, his words include snippets of explanation of its play’s subtext, highlight the universality and thus modernity of its metaphors about property and clarify the dramatic concept of Chekhov’s gun… providing the cast don’t muck it up by accidentally skipping a few pages of dialogue. There is humour too as he makes metatheatrical observations regarding the actors, such as in reaction to their underplay of lines, moving towards offer of his opinion of them, including their flaws.
The soap-opera story of Anton Chekov’s first play, Platonov, which he started writing ‘before he was Chekhov’ at just 18 years of age, is of the widowed Anna Petrovna who can no longer afford the upkeep on her giant house (represented by Andrew Clancy’s imposing and immaculate redbrick set) and the benefactor trying to woo her despite her love belonging to another, already married man. At five hours in unadapted form (thanks to 83 scenes) and with a 20 character cast and multiple themes, the ambitiously complicated play is generally accepted as unstageable.
But this is far from a traditional telling, and not just due to the headphones. Things begin to change towards the abstract when the obscure Platonov arrives on stage, with the actors slipping in and out of character. As they await and then laud Platonov’s arrival, the Chekhovian language begins to breakdown; as Chinese takeaway is ordered, mention of traditional superstition is Googlised and talk even turns to Kim and Kanye. Chaos soon ensues as the show’s stately staging is wrecked (literally) and the gun reappears. And it works… mainly due to Platonov, the central character, who does not utter a single word as the world implodes around him. To say more would be to ruin the impressive imagery and pack-a-punch impact of the work’s modern application of its after and always themes of ownership, translated too within a feminist discourse. All cast members are impressive, whether performing the naturalism of Chekhov’s original script or when within the heightened melodrama of later lip-synced sections.
Chekhov’s First Play is a hugely inventive work, not just in the realisation of its rebuild from the broken down fragments of its source material, but its concept of modern examination of a classic, and shows that the leading character can be any one of us. Like An Oak Tree and Gob Squad’s Kitchen (You’ve Never Had It So Good), with a bit of last year’s Confidence Man, Chekhov’s First Play creates a truly memorable and though-provoking theatrical experience through its insightful reconciliation of Chekhov’s trademark naturalism with the commotion of our everyday world. Go for the comfort of its classic premise but stay for the challenge of its shattering of preconceptions. And then share your thoughts so that others might also join in the incredible privilege we have to be seeing such acclaimed work from this year’s ‘Irish Rebellion’ Brisbane Festival Artists in residence.