Edinburgh Fringe 2014
"Bitesize Chekhov is back! The five-star sell-out sensation that catapults the legendary writer Anton Chekhov into the 21st century returns to Edinburgh. Serving up three tasty Chekhov shorts in the space of an hour (The Dangers of Tobacco, The Proposal and Swan Song), this theatrical spectacular is the perfect introduction to the work of one of the greatest playwrights of all time. Now in their third consecutive year at the Fringe, d’Animate have a gained formidable reputation for taking classic works and staging them like you’ve never seen before."
Chekhov was a writer of comedy. It’s worth saying that first and foremost because not every production understands this essential truth as well as d’Animate. Chekhov is not hairshirt material for the mortification of the flesh. D’Animate affirm that when we speak of Chekhov we refer to a living, breathing, sharply satirical body of work – not simply a long-dead Russian scribbler from before the red tsars.
In Bitesized Chekkhov three of his most intricate one-act plays are expertly conserved, cleverly restored and inventively staged as a three-hander.
The Dangers of Tobacco is straight up the best bit of physical theatre I’ve seen in ages. The movement is tightly choreographed, disciplined but also fun. They’re freewheeling on the fine line between comedy and tragedy. Tobacco’s narrator, Ivan Ivanovich Nyukhin, is a small town guy with a shrewish wife. The henpecked headmaster (and janitor) of his rich spouse’s school for girls is an emotional wreck, his life a shambles of unpicked ambition.
In Wodehouse, there is Bertie Wooster, the put-upon protagonist, and there is Bertie Wooster, the care-free narrator.* In d’Animates staging of Tobacco it’s the protagonist who is calm serenity and the narrator who’s all at sixes and sevens. Michael Rivers is fabulous as the frantic phantom of former days.
He is equally manic as the hypochondriacal suitor in The Proposal. Maeve Smyth morphs from untamed shrew into the coy (yet cloying) object of Rivers’ attention. William Mythum (as her father) is the poised, dry-witted conduit through which much of the piece’s energy is run. His brand of deadpan sincerity and likability are the ideal foil to flappable flounder persona Rivers makes his own.
If Tobacco was the forum for Rivers, Proposal is the place where Smyth finds her place in the spotlight. She is equal parts need for love and independent mind. Her squabbles with Rivers over an unimportant patch of acres threaten to derail his proposal time after time in ever more hilarious interplays between stubborn and stubborner.
Regrettably, Swan Song was something of a dead duck. There’s no doubting it’s a sensational piece, sensitively performed, but it sits uncomfortably at the end of a bill dominated by mirth and mayhem. Mythum, as the celebrated actor lost in his own theatre after a heavy night, is everything you could want and maybe more. But it’s rather like going back to the G&T immediately after several expertly mixed cocktails. Sandwiching it between Tobacco and Proposal might make better sense.
Chekhov was a genius writer or profound silliness. Across the eleven decades since his demise his voice rings loud and clear through three expert mediums. Is there anybody there? If you have any sense you’ll be.
*The same is true of Flashman, which is why any decent future movie adaptation will require more than Dom West putting on a fancy costume and acting boorish. (But what do I know? I quite like Royal Flash.)