Sunday, March 18, 2007

Theatre Review : Platonov by Anton Chekhov - Maly Drama Theatre of St Petersburg - Barbican (dir Lev Dodin 16/03/07)

Ever so rarely one is fortunate enough to experience that union of text, action and music which elevates a night at the theatre into the realms of the extraordinary. This was one such night: three and a half hours of constant, captivating brilliance, of the finest acting and astonishing staging, which swept the naturally reticent London audience into a breathless standing ovation.

Not that I was expecting anything better than an extraorinary crick in the neck when I settled into my seat at the Barbican and realised that the surtitles were almost directly above me, necassitating a constant movement between the text and the action. Whilst Chekhov's Russian has some beautiful rhythmic sonorities, my unfamiliarity with the text necessitated constant reference above my head.

The stage itself was split in three levels, the upper two like a wooden Russian Dacha (plus piano an drumkit), the lowest covered in sand. It was quite a surprise when Sergey Pavlovich pulled off his shirt and executed a perfect swallow-dive into the pool of water which ran the length of the stage beyond the sand just out of my sight. The pool is integral to the staging, and characters dive in and out as they dive into and out of situations - but water is a constant recurring theme throughout the play and adds to the typically Chekhovian steamy claustrophobia of the Country estate.

Platonov is a schoolteacher, a would-be intellectual and cynic with a gift of the gab that makes him irrestistable to the ladies. His is a life of promise which has dissipated into failure - he never passed his exams at university, to everyone's surprise, and isn't even qualified to be a schoolteacher. His friend Voinitsev has returned to his estate with his beautiful new bride, a former lover of Platonov's. Meanwhile Voinitsev's predatory stepmother has also set her sights on Platonov, to the consternation of his allsuffering wife.

Chekhov's original text was sprawling, and it is remarkable that Lev Dodin removed 9 characters and many subplots in order to make the production manageable for the stage. Maybe that accounts for the pace of the staging, which, whilst dwelling langourously over certain scenes, never slackens. As ever with the Maly Drama Theatre, the characters play their own instruments, and raucous, joyous, anarchic ragtime frames the action - even playing whilst marching through the pool, all adding to this barrage on the senses.

Whilst all the cast was brilliant, Sergey Kuryshev in the title role was extraordinary. He is a tall, rough, untidy character, not a looker, but whose presence is magnetic whenever he is on stage. As he drawls out his clever, cynical words one can see the effect that he has on those around him. Platonov's tragedy is his weakness, that he can resist everything except temptation, and Kuryshev captures that weakness perfectly. He is a totally different type of womanizer to Rhys Ifans in the recent Don Juan in Soho - whereas Don Juan is utterly selfindulgent and doesn't care about anyone, Platonov does but can't help himself. Maybe he is a Russian type? - think of Dmitry in the Brothers Karamazov. He is well-complemented by Ksenia Rappaport as the young wife of Voinitsev who realises her mistake when she sees Platonov again. Sexual energy crackles through the air as they embrace in the pool.

Inevitably everything resolves itself into tragedy, the pool's presence becoming increasingly more malign. The cast pick up their instruments and play a final haunting theme that lasts all the way home along with the many remarkable images of this wonderful production.

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