CHEKHOV IN HELL
by Dan Rebellato.
Soho Theatre 21 Dean Street W1D 3NE To 14 May 2011.
Mon-Sat 7.30pm Mat Thu & Sat 3pm.
Audio-described 4 May.
Captioned 10 May.
Runs 1hr 35min No interval.
TICKETS: 020 7478 0100.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 30 April.
Ingenious new use for a major dead playwright.
Along with Shakespeare Anton Chekhov stands out among dramatists for observing his characters without judging them. Not that shortcomings aren’t apparent. But they’re not used to evoke blame. It’s how these people are. And Dan Rebellato’s play (first seen at Plymouth’s Drum Theatre) makes clear the great writer Chekhov had, in his day job as a good doctor, faced life, humanity and the human body in the raw.
The opening scene’s plain only to speakers of Russian and German, or anyone reading the programme-script; set around Chekhov’s death-bed in 1904, his final words, and those of the people surrounding him, are muttered in these languages. Thereafter, things become English – very English and very modern as Rebellato supposes Chekhov actually lay in a coma for a century before waking in England where, it seems, he has a young relative Nicola. Who’s never heard of him.
But she sees something in his eyes. And Chekhov has that effect on people he meets after leaving the hospital unannounced and wandering innocently into a largely disconnected parade of criminal and pretentious types, bound in a cynical society by motives of profit and self-promotion.
Given his limited English it’s not surprising Simon Scardifield’s Chekhov doesn’t say a lot – what he does say often taking the form of questions. Scardifield captures the Russian’s dignified bemusement, whether with fashion designers, a trafficked sex-worker or others.
Of course, this is a fantasy set-up, easily contested. After forty-plus years in Tsarist Russia did Chekhov know nothing he could relate this to? Not heavy-handed policing, male brutality to women, trendy pretentiousness? And while a brief encapsulation of the 20th-century could be as downbeat as fearful Ukrainian Irina makes it, there’s more to modern history than war and global capitalism.
But such debating points scarcely matter in this cabaret-style trip through society’s seamier segments. Dignified, quiet, formally-dressed, Chekhov becomes a measure for people who live with no sense of history. The scenes are brief enough no make their point without becoming indulgent, there’s enough of a plot-thread to hold things together, and the cast in Simon Stokes’ production are all first-rate.
Anton Chekhov: Simon Scardifield.
Olga Knipper/Nurse/Language Student/WPC Gregory/Claire Willis/Jemma/Lap Dancer/Cheryl/Valerie/Kelly: Emily Raymond.
Doktor Schwöhrer/Cardiac Specialist/Language Student/Aleksandr/Steve/Clergyman: Paul Rider.
Gregor/Doctor/Language Student/Jade/Mike/Security Guard/Max/James Ward/Policeman: Jonathan Broadbent.
Nicholas/Physiotherapist/Language Student/PC Aston/Neil/Martin/Nick/Bob/Craig: Geoffrey Lumb.
Nicola/Language Student/Sarah/Lap Dancer/Saly/Cathy/Mimi/Lynn/Marcia/Selina/Jessica/Irina: Ruth Everett.
Director: Simon Stokes.
Designer: Bob Bailey.
Lighting: Natasha Chivers.
Sound: Adrienne Quartly.
Projections: Richard Price.
Dialect coach: William Connacher.
Russian translations: Noah Birksted-Breen.