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FringeReview UK 2016


National Theatre, London

Genre: Classical and Shakespeare, Comedic, Drama, Mainstream Theatre, Theatre

Venue: National Theatre, Oliver


Low Down

The Young Chekhov trilogy in translations by David Hare transfers from its triumphant season at Chichester last autumn to the National’s Olivier. Jonathan Kent’s overall direction stamps a production rendered evocative in Tom Pye’s flexible design, fitting perfectly into the Oliver space, itself an echo of Chichester’s. Jonathan Dove’s music, spare and evocative, features the composer at the keyboard.


Jonathan Kent’s Young Chekhov trilogy in translations by David Hare transfers from its triumphant season at Chichester last autumn to the National’s Olivier. Tom Pye’s flexible design with its stripped boards and trees counterpointing pop-up interiors and furniture, fits perfectly into the Oliver space, itself an echo of Chichester’s. Jonathan Dove’s music, spare and evocative, features the composer at the keyboard.


Everything’s brilliantly unstable in Platonov starting with the title. This earliest play of Chekhov’s is a text translators feel able to make their own, with seven hours’ worth to extract a text from, or five in the full Russian version staged recently. David Hare’s 2001 text is, he modestly claims, a staging post, the most faithful after so many extractions and complete rewrites including Michael Frayn’s more sheerly comic Wild Honey. Hare’s attempt not only returns us to the original frame, but fashions a taut cat’s cradle out of a tangle.


Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons stirs in the background, the mid-century’s revolutionary ferment and desperados, more comic farce, edging tragedy. It’s not that it’s immature Chekhov, though it is in part, but it’s far more: a busy ensemble narrative where Platonov venturi-tubes into the position of hero: since his destination is farcical melodrama, it concentrates him wonderfully as a village Byron at the least.


It’s clear the introduction is necessarily concertina’d by Hare, but the rush of supporting characters offsets Platonov’s haplessness, on which the play ultimately hangs. Other sub-plots abound; it’d make an interesting epic to see one day. For instance the sweet-natured father Glagolyev (Jonathan Coy) and vicious son Kiril (Mark Donald) who wants him dead for his fortune and smears Anna’s character to prevent Coy’s hopeless suit. Donald’s weasel-like fastening causes a mild stroke: they end emigrating to Paris where son will tutor father.


There are fine vignettes too from David Verrey’s and Brian Pettifer’s rapacious merchants singing duos, Pip Carter’s luckless dull husband to Sofya, Nicholas Day as Platonov’s father-in-law, the old colonel, memorably distrait. Underlining Platonov’s incontinence, Sarah Twomey’s chemistry student Maria, a minor flirting that accelerates the end swells a visibly decadent landscape, crisply brought on and off with a pace that never slackens.


These characters rush to introduce themselves to Anna Petrovna’s home, soon to be forfeit in a Cherry Orchard pre-echo (spotting these is an eighth of the fun). One of the few stable propositions is Sasha’ brother Nikolai, self-confessed useless doctor (except at the end, attending Sasha) and better wit. Joshua James (also Konstantin in The Seagull) here plumbs a gawky analogue consummately squinting out of his pinched spectacles.


James McArdle’s vibrant, sexy quixotically self-aware Platonov flirts with widowed Anna Petrovna (Nina Sosanya, her finest performance to date), the woman to whom he’s most suited, who understands his nature and matches him intellectually as well as it seems, sexually. But he’s married to long-suffering Sasha, impoverished colonel’s daughter; they have a small son. McArdle flirts too with the audience, in direct monologues, faux-sighing asides and cocksure confidences.


Not that this stops Platonov when Petrovna makes an assignation also double-booked by his returning ex-student and old flame Sofya, Olivia Vinall who features in all three plays. Here Vinall outdoes herself as naively righteous but still sexually charged young woman who lacks Petrovna’s imaginative tact: having given herself, Sofya’s Vinall gauchly dismisses her new husband announcing to her mother she’s bringing Platonov on a plate to her. Foiled, she goes off with a bang.


Wife Sasha’s Jade Williams however points up the harrowing abandoned wife who in the most breath-taking end of a first half I’ve seen, first tries to kill herself by kneeling in front of an oncoming train all blare and blinding light, only to be plucked out of the way at the last moment by Des McAleer’s vagabond king Osip. This is the morally-torn Petrovna-fixated horse thief who’s literally torn apart instead offstage later having also tried this on Platonov. Sasha ungratefully tries poison too.


Sasha’s abject suffering counterpoises Faydeau-esque hilarity in Act Three (divisions are relative) when the sexually exhausted and ‘stinking’ Platonov is visited in his schoolroom with tiny bright chairs by just about everyone. He tries to leave each of the three women importuning him, aware now of his havoc-creating talent. Vacillation and the careless leaving of ironware (symbolically by Sasha’s father) leads to a different farce altogether.


McArdle Sosanya and Vinall play this up unashamedly: Sosanya matches his vodka-shots, surprised at its quality ‘It really isn’t bad’ gets a laugh as patrician Petrovna unbends. She also tells him candidly his eyes ‘look like two plates of borscht’ and he ‘looks like an actor… all romantic thinness and longing’ – Petrovna has the measure of him: you almost long for consummation and wily redemption, now Sasha’s leaving.


Vinall comes cheerfully near to parodying a sex-starved heroine out of Ray Cooney. It’s only punctuated by Williams (the only one to repudiate Platonov unequivocally), McAleer’s wholly disillusioned Osip and the ex-artillery postman, paid in loose tea for his summons (involving another farcical sub-plot, kissing teenager Maria).


It’s a testament to the repertory of actors assembled for the three plays, Vinall in all three, most in at least two, that they elicit such absorbed, perfectly judged reactions from each other: ensemble acting that’s like a small repertory company.


They’re naturally helped by a finely-fileted text and rendering-down of Hare’s, boned repartee and one-liners that make you wonder how much on occasion might be Chekhov. It’s less interventionist-seeming than his Seagull because we know the latter better, and more forgivable anyway.


Jonathan Kent’s production of Platonov heralds perhaps the finest of the trio he’s directing with such clean brilliance, and the most revelatory, but it’s a close-run thing. It’s no small feat to have finally delivered a definitive sixth masterpiece of Chekhov’s, linking him back to mid-century Turgenev and forward to his mature canon.