How to update a classic play

Written for IdeasTap

How to update a classic play

In the year Chekhov met Cobain, radical interpretations of classics have been all the rage. Honour Bayes looks at what it takes to successfully revamp a golden oldie…

Stay true to the original…

2012 has seen Anton Chekhov get modern makeovers, with Benedict Andrews’ modern-day Three Sisters (including a rendition of Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’) and Anya Reiss’ The Seagull, set on the Isle of Man. While each text is decades away from 19th-century Russia, both playwrights remained faithful to Chekhov’s play. “I value the opportunity to meet the play and get to know its characters better,” says Benedict. He adds that the most extreme transformations come from a rigorous re-examining of the text: “The only advice I can give is to not settle for quick answers or second-hand readings – seek out the play’s DNA, its raw fibres, and try to expose them.” Anya looked for the pieces of the original that were eternal: “Once I found them, they became the supports… and it’s just a matter of bridging between these supports, using the original as a blueprint of how you get from these points.” Or as One Man, Two Guvnors writer Richard Bean puts it, “The plot’s [Carlo] Goldoni’s and all the dialogue is mine.”

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Review: 16 Possible Glimpses

Written for Exeunt

In a world where the lives of artists are as interesting as the work they produce, 16 Possible Glimpses is a tantalising prospect. Marina Carr’s play takes a look at the life of Anton Chekhov, fracturing it down into 16 fictionalised sequences and leaving the Abbey Theatre’s Associate Director Wayne Jordan to sew them together.

Chekhov’s life certainly seems to provide rich pickings for such a bio-drama and is here presented not as a dour Russian playwright but as a playboy, carouser, caring brother and egocentric artist. We watch his life unfold through a mixture of slow motion sequences, live stage filming, and projections. There is a lot of snow and a silhouetted, hooded monk. The production never bores its audience but its stylishness feels hollow and slightly desperate. One starts to wonder if Jordan really trusts Carr’s material. A large amount of this stage business feels superfluous. It’s hard to work out why certain moments are filmed, for example, while others are not; the balletic removal and then immediate replacement of the chairs in a café scene also feels something of a mystery.

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Sovremennik Season at The Noel Coward Theatre

Written for http://www.fourthwallmagazine.co.uk/

Into The Whirlwind

Home to arguably the father of modern theatrical practice Constantin Stanislavski, expressionist master Vsevolod Meyerhold and of course Anton Chekhov, it’s fair to say Russia has a strong theatrical tradition.

Tonight marks the opening of a new season which will allow British theatre goers a glimpse at the state Russian theatre today. Sovremennik (literally translating to ‘contemporary’) will be performing three plays over a nine day run at The Noel Coward Theatre. The strictly limited run has been funded by Chelsea football club owner, Roman Abramovich and promises lavish sets and an ensemble of 50, an extraordinary number in the middle of a worldwide recession.  The season will be the first time that a major Russian theatre company has come to London in 20 years but seems a logical step for this internationally touring company.

The first foreign company to win an American Drama Desk Award they are led by Galina Volchek, a leading figure in the Russian theatrical landscape, and boast a number of film and television stars in the troupe.

The season which will be performed in Russian with English surtitles and will comprise of two Chekhov pieces, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard. Tonight marks the opening of the third play, a modern piece penned by journalist Eugenia Ginzburg’s documenting her imprisonment in the Gulag, titled Into The Whirlwind.

Tickets prices go up to £49.50 but for students can be as little as £7, a perfectly reasonable amount to see what modern Russian theatre is made of.

Performance information:

21-22 Jan Into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Ginzburg

24-25 Jan Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov

28-29 Jan  The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov

Time: Time: 19.00

Venue: Noel Coward Theatre, St Martin’s Lane, London, WC2N 4AU

Ticket Prices:         £49.50 – £12.50 ( £7.00 with a student ID card)

Box Office:  0844 482 5140 / http://www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk

The Factory’s The Seagull: Improvisation is about doing things and Chekhov is essentially about people doing nothing – it’s a recipe for dire theatre

The Factory is a company that do what could literally be described as Flash-mob Theatre.  A facebook update is released on Friday about shows which are played out that Sunday and the precious 50 tickets or so sell with lighting speed because this is a troupe with a fantastic reputation for mixing it up in playfully irreverent but perceptive productions. Their latest production of The Seagull has been popping up around venues (some theatrical, though mostly not) across London for the last few months and it’s had some cracking reviews and great audience feedback.  So why were I and my friends left so non-plussed?

Having tackled Hamlet with great panache, The Factory’s off-the-cuff style, incorporating multi-playing (3 actors toss to see who plays a character each night) props taken from random audience belongings (at one Hamlet performance, a pineapple became Yorick’s skull) and improvised blocking, completely dampened Chekhov’s rapier social commentary.   The whole thing became diffused and by presenting us with a simplified version of the text it was slightly like a bad family drama, and we’ve all had enough Eastenders to last us a life time.  It is easy to feel this way about Chekhov’s work, just ask teachers who battle against bored teenagers year in year out, and indeed on many levels they are ghastly family dramas about mean spirited and self centred individuals. The brilliance comes in his precise and perceptively drawn characters, each of whom are whittled from life with minute detail.  It is in the moments when you absolutely recognise someone you know, or yourself, in these people on stage that Chekhov really pierces you.

Every word counts to get you through the mundane and skin deep unpleasantness of his characters into the painfully acute psychological studies that they are and to give you these moments of recognition. I’m not saying I’m a purist, Katie Mitchell and Martin Crimps’ key-hole surgery version at the National was a precise and minimalist masterpiece of this play, but then they were making it more specific and not less so; as she says ‘The text that emerged…was considerably shorter, leaner and more angular’.  But The Factory have decided to do a different version each night, which here means that it will always be improvised with the actors using their own words.  What has been created through this lack of structure is a convoluted and diffused production of a text that is full of light and shade, in a show which has become a muddy grey through this company’s constant need to ‘keep the ball afloat’.  This desperate need to maintain the base level of energy at all costs is also to the detriment of any detailed character work from these clearly talented performers.  There are no silences, no moments of real tension or pain, everything is slightly too comfortable because they won’t allow it to get dangerous.

The Factory’s anarchic and unabashed approach is to be applauded and encouraged, and Shakespeare’s writing was developed by them in a perfect marriage of text and performance in typically bawdy style.  However I think that Chekhov’s subtleties may be beyond this form of immediate theatre.  Maybe I’m wrong? But to get anywhere near it, they’re going to need to go right back into the text and dig a lot deeper, not discard it for a million and one improvised words.