Review: Chekhov’s First Play

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews.

Platonov is the title most frequently given to Chekhov’s first play, based on the name of the central character, which Chekov began to write at the age of 18. Generally accepted as being unstageable due to its large cast and running time (5 hours in its unadapted form) it is rarely performed for obvious reasons. Keen for a challenge, Dead Centre present Chekhov’s First Play as part of Dublin Theatre Festival.

First off, it is clear that this will be no straightforward production. All seats are equipped with headphones which everyone puts on with the encouragement of director Bush Moukarzel. This instantly has the effect of feeling more intimate yet isolating. Moukarzel briefly explains a little about the show and how things will proceed, as well as making a hames of describing the principle of Chekhov’s gun. Moukarzel leaves the stage and the show commences. A classic Chekhovian set is unveiled and the action begins.  Through the headphones Moukarzel gives his director’s commentary of the unfolding play. This quickly goes from the professional to the personal as Moukarzel highlights the actor’s flaws and faults, as well as trying to explain to the audience about theatrical premises such subtext and themes. Just as the audience is delightfully enjoying this very humorous, smart yet simple approach Moukarzel becomes erratic in his speech and increasingly full of self-doubt.

Then, true to form for Dead Centre, things get a little weird. In fact, they get a lot weird.  What could be described as the second act commences with a bang and from this point on the boundaries are broken down between what is on stage and what is real life. The elusive Platonov arrives onstage and the play progresses with the actors slipping in and out of character. The disillusionment of the text gives way to the problems the actors face in their own lives and the complexity of being. Both farcical and satirical, Chekov’s First Play highlights the pretence and absurdity attached with the imagined rules people apply to life- from the theatre itself to everything that happens “out there” in the real world. Brining the outside in and turning the inside out the fabric between fiction and fact is torn, stitched up, and torn again. With Moukarzel missing from the aural experience (presumably having a nervous breakdown) he is replaced by music and sounds from the real world. The overall feel becomes, at least momentarily, that of a deranged drug addled music video, complete with wrecking balls, alcohol, drugs, and nudity.

Despite Chekhov’s gun being given lots of stage time, Dead Centre clearly gives this principle the finger. Arguably metatheatrical at times, Chekhov’s First Play ends up with everything on stage, resulting in a chaotic stew of people and props, not to mention ideas, themes, and constructs. Naturally this piece would fall apart without an exceptional team, so hats need to be tipped to all involved, in particular sound designer Jimmy Eadie.

How amazing it would be to watch this piece as a bystander (please say it’s being recorded) as the audience respond to what is in their headphones rather than what is taking place on stage.  Similarly, what an experience it must have been for the remarkable cast of Liam Carney, Breffni Holohan, Rory Nolan, Rebecca O’Mara, Annie Ryan and Dylan Tighe. For 75 minutes Chekhov’s First Play entertains and challenges, while causing laughter and head scratching in equal amounts. Even a post-show dissection feels like the wrong thing to do; the experience of the piece isn’t as easily quantifiable as “good acting” or “effective lighting”. It’s best left as a whole and appreciated for what it is. Chekhov may be spinning in his grave but the audience mostly like it.

Writer:  Anton Chekhov

Adaption: Dead Centre

Directors: Bush Moukarzel and Ben Kidd

Photo by Jason Booher

Runs until October 4th 2015 as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival

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