Hampstead Theatre Winter 2016-2017
Here's a play that sets out to be a French sex farce and somehow ends up a Chekhov drama.
That's actually not all that strange, as it's an adaptation of a Chekhov play (sometimes known by the title Platonov) by expert farceur Michael Frayn.
But the schizoid quality of the end product means that while it makes tentative forays in both directions, it ultimately doesn't do full justice to either.
A bit of background. Chekhov's earliest attempt at play writing was first discovered years after his death in what is evidently an abandoned first draft.
Like most first drafts it is overlong and unfocused, and all productions and adaptations have had to carve out a producible text, inevitably altering the work by choosing what to keep and omit.
Michael Frayn found the incipient farce. We're in a typically Chekhovian provincial community, largely orbiting around attractive young widow Anna.
Just about everybody is related to everybody else, by blood, marriage, romantic history or unrequited love; and the hothouse atmosphere – it's also midsummer – makes everybody a little out of control.
The men are all, in their various ways, in love with Anna, while acerbic schoolmaster Platonov compulsively makes love to whichever woman he happens to be alone with at any moment.
We are clearly being set up for a double farce in which the men just barely avoid meeting each other as their wooing of Anna intensifies, while Platonov struggles to satisfy two or more women simultaneously waiting to be seduced.
And we do get both in the second half, but along the way something else has happened.
Chekhov has won out over Frayn, and the Russian master's patented ability to make even the most minor characters come alive and have dramas of their own gets in the way of brainless comedy.
The machinery of farce requires that we not really care about the men chasing Anna or the women aroused and then dropped by Platonov, but we do. On the other hand, the Chekhovian insight that everyone is capable of real emotions that demand at least passing respect is undercut when they are used as mere pawns in the farce.
Bits of both – of funniness and sympathy – do come through, but they constantly fight for our attention rather than balancing or enriching each other.
Director Howard Davies died during preparations for this production, his vision for the play generously staged by Jonathan Kent. You sense in the direction a struggle to reconcile the play's clashing tones and intentions.
The farcical situations virtually require precise choreography, one character entering the very second another exits, but the Chekhovian depth makes us want a chance to feel for the person entering or leaving. And so things move a little too leisurely or not quite leisurely enough.
Moments that should sparkle comically don't quite, while moments that should move us are rushed. We get chuckles where there should be laughs, and brief flashes of emotions that are gone almost too quickly to register.
Justine Mitchell is much more effective and convincing as the cool and amused Anna of the first half than as the abruptly amorous and take-me-now sexually desperate Anna of the second.
And while Geoffrey Streatfeild makes us believe both Platonov's compulsive womanising and his eventual exhaustion and despair, he can't get into the man far enough to explain either or make them seem parts of the same character.
Everyone else in the large cast does yeoman work being both ridiculous and sympathetic, with varying degrees of success.
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