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Posts Tagged ‘Anton Chekhov’

Irish playwright Brian Friel wrote something like 30 plays and adaptations in 45 years from the early 60’s. A handful have been revived fairly regularly, becoming classics. This is the second London revival of the summer, following the highly successful Translations at the NT. Sadly this rather Chekhovian play, written just one year earlier in 1979, is a lot less successful.

Though the story is the same, this isn’t the play I remember seeing at Hampstead Theatre in 1988 or the NT in 2005, and I’m struggling to understand why. Here the Irish ‘big house’ is represented by a faded backdrop and a model around which the action takes place in a shallow pit, with actors waiting at the back until they take part. I found Es Devlin’s design and Lyndsey Turner’s staging a bit puzzling.

The family is gathered for youngest daughter Claire’s wedding to a much older man, who we never meet. Casimir has come from Hamburg where he now lives with his wife and two boys. Alice and her husband Eamon are over from London. Judith runs the home, looking after their father, Uncle George and Claire, though she’d clearly like to be somewhere else with Willie. American historian Tom is visiting as part of the research into his latest project.

Nothing much happens in the first two acts, which is my main problem with it. Claire plays Chopin, encouraged by Casimir, sexually ambiguous, who tells implausible stories. Eamon and Alice, who seems to be the subject of abuse, spar. Willie makes himself useful; fixing intercom speakers so they can hear father’s confused ramblings downstairs. By the interval, I was frankly rather bored.

They make up for it in the final act, where their father’s funeral has usurped the wedding, which is to be delayed for three months. They try and resolve what is to happen to the house, and to Uncle George. Eamon and Alice are to return to London, taking the uncle with them. Casimir is heading back to his family in Germany. Judith wants rid of the liability the house has become so that she can at last live her own life. In a fine cast, David Dawson shines as Casimir, banishing the memory of Niall Buggy and Andrew Scott, who played the role before him.

This time around, I found it dull, uneven and poorly paced, a bit like my bete noire Chekhov!

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Robert Holman must be the least well known prolific playwright of the last forty years. He’s written twenty-four plays, half of which were first produced by august companies and theatres like the RSC, the Royal Court and the Bush, where this 1977 play, his seventh, was first seen. He’s often considered the playwrights playwright. After this, I’ve decided to call him the Guisborough Chekov.

You learn what the title means early on. We’re on that bleak industrial Teeside coastline lined with steel and chemical plants, ships offshore waiting to offload their cargo. Thirty-nine years on, of course, the steelworks is closed and the Wilton petrochemical plant that once employed tens of thousands has been split up and sold off to multiple companies, employing a lot less people. In the middle of this is a birdwatching spot where 59-year-old Martin and twenty-something Jack meet looking for cormorants and oyster catchers.

We learn about Jack’s thwarted ambition (he works at the Wilton chemical plant), where Martin goes for his holidays and about an environmental issue about to threaten the habitat of their beloved birds. We meet Jack’s wife Carol and Martin’s son’s friend Michael. There’s a tragedy offstage. It’s gentle, wistful stuff. I admired the writing. I didn’t quite believe in Jack, but the other characters are well drawn. Director Alice Hamilton has great affinity with plays like this, as she showed with Barney Norris’ The Visitors and Eventide. I liked James Perkins’ clever design. The performances are good. I was under-stimulated and a bit bored, though. For me, it didn’t really go anywhere. It was all a bit dull and unengaging. The Guisborough Chekov.

 

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It took the new master of reinvention, director Robert Icke, to make me break my ‘No More Chekov’ rule. Surely he’s the man to turn paint-drying plays into something more animated and interesting?

Well, he starts with a rectangular, canopied wooden platform that slowly moves. His characters have modern clothes and new names, though they are still in essence Chekov’s. He also seems to have added almost an hour to the playing time and slowed the paint-drying down rather than speed it up.

Finally, he provides three short intervals after each act, which was too much temptation for me I’m afraid, and I broke at the second one and came home. It was still a bunch of irritating people talking bollocks. Nowhere near radical enough a reinvention for me.

 

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When I first saw this play, in a production by Peter Hall c.15 years ago, it fizzed; so much so that I went back to see it again when it returned to London after an extensive tour. It seemed to me to be so much better than the play most consider his best – The Importance of Being Ernest. For reasons I cannot fathom, in Lindsay Posner’s production the first half is ponderously slow – one of the longest ‘set up’s’ I can remember – whilst the second half zips along.

Oscar Wilde’s play may be 115 years old but if you ignore the settings and costumes, its thoroughly modern – unlike contemporaries like Chekhov or Ibsen, it has hardly aged. The story is rather timely – a corrupt act in the past comes back to haunt a rising star politician. The morals of the case are explored as the events unfold, but with Wilde’s usual sharp wit, satirising the upper classes along the way.

Stephen Brimson-Lewis’ opulent gold set becomes three different rooms in the same house and with the insertion of a simple green wall transforms into a room in another house. With superb period costumes, it looks gorgeous and seems to me to capture the time and the society of the protagonists perfectly.

What makes this revival is brilliant casting. Samantha Bond is a suitably icy Mrs Cheveley, Rachel Sterling (looking mote like her mother than she ever has before) a moralistic Lady Chiltern and Alexander Hanson a somewhat ernest archetypal politician with an ability to change his stance and rationalise it seamlessly.  The star of the show though is Elliott Cowan’s Viscount Goring, a brilliant and witty creation in full flight, and there are lovely cameos from Charles Kay, Caroline Blakiston and Fiona Button.

Such a shame the first two acts didn’t have the pace of the second two, but worth a look nonetheless.

 

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