Chekhov's Last Play or Is that the starting pistol?
Chekhov's Last Play - Dead Centre
Battersea Arts Centre, 1st November 2018
Written for The Guardian
Take Chekhov’s first play (it’s pretty terrible, FYI). Next, remove the servants and scrap the remaining characters’ back histories. Finally, feed the director’s notes to the audience via headphones. Just as things are getting really weird, swing a giant wrecking ball on stage. Stand back and watch the theatrical fireworks explode.
Dead Centre’s devised production is a deliciously playful affair. It can be experienced as a pure theatrical thrill-ride but it is also a thoughtful meditation on the futility of searching for absolute meaning in the theatre. In a similar manner to RashDash’s wild take on Three Sisters, Bush Moukarzel’s and Ben Kidd’s unleashed production hums with a truly Chekhovian lust for rebellion.
The show begins with the director, played by its actual director, Moukarzel, addressing the audience. He warns us that Chekhov wrote this unnamed play when he was just 18, and it isn’t very good. All that happens is that a bunch of Russians meet up and philosophise morosely about the future. But there is some interesting stuff in here, which the director is going to help us understand.
After this, almost every beat of Chekhov’s play is undercut, or cut out completely. The director whispers anxiously into our headphones: themes are desperately highlighted, missed cues gasped over, the actors berated and belittled. Andrew Clancy’s carefully constructed summerhouse, with its tidy lines and stark colours, begins to fall apart. The actors switch costumes, or remove them altogether. Wine drips appear and silly wigs disappear. The sound design shifts into the future (clever work from Jimmy Eadie and Kevin Gleeson) and contemporary life bleeds on to the stage: a Chinese takeaway is biked in, and one poor soul gets tangled up in police tape.
Any semblance of meaning dissolves, but flashes of promise still flicker. Breffni Holahan as a ferociously unsatisfied wife; Liam Carney as a curdled older man; Dylan Tighe as a desperately downtrodden husband: there’s an intensity to these roles that suggest Chekhov’s later genius. But for this night, at least, there is little to hold on to – and there’s a certain comfort in that. None of us really know what we’re doing, not even Chekhov.