Chekhov cut down to size

Safety in liquor: Jack Laskey (left) as Mischa Platonov. Pictures: Simon Annand

Sons Without Fathers

Coventry Belgrade

*****

FIRST impressions are not invariably right. Entering the Belgrade's beautifully appointed, Swan-like Studio Theatre (Belgrade 2) for the start of Chekhov's updated play Sons without Fathers, one was struck, even offended, by the confused melée: the stage looked a mess. Would the production be, too? 

Then almost as instantly, one got it: this was Chekhov. Here is a playwright who exults and excels in mess, in the tensions and futile hopelessness of a quasi-feudal, outdated class society, its struggling scions and doomed landed gentry, imploding on itself and cantering towards the non-solution of 1917.  

Scarcely out of his teens, Chekhov shows in Sons without Fathers distempered heads. And the distempered, littered stage, all higgledy-piggledy seating, clumsy utensils,  green plastic child's potty, caught that pretty perfectly.   

Formerly and usually known as Platonov (when it was rediscovered in 1921, it lacked a title page), this play Chekhov wrote aged 20-22 (possibly earlier) - never staged in his lifetime, but released by his family and officially archived shortly into the Soviet era - has acquired various titles along the way.

Hard-hitting, it ran to some six hours – almost as long as the Austrian Karl Kraus's The Last Days of Mankind; and as you might expect from the mature Chekhov, Gogol or others, it is just as pithily satirical as its early 20th century German opposite number. 

The director, Helena Kaut-Howson, whose work I trace back to a scintillating Carl Nielsen Maskarade at Opera North in Leeds, has travelled the distance since. She has links with the Belgrade dating back three decades.

Polish-born, she has returned to Warsaw, Kraków and Wrocław – centres of theatrical genius all - collecting a Polish Grand Prix at the last; Israel is another of her haunts. Her A Tender Thing (Ben Power's daring Romeo and Juliet retelling) was recently seen at the RSC's Swan Theatre, one of several times she has paired up with the wonderfully wayward Kathryn Hunter (including as King Lear). Manchester (Royal Exchange) and Leeds (Playhouse), including a Marat/Sade and Another Country, have both seen her work regularly.  

Was she an inspiration for Coventry too? The way Kaut-Howson revolutionised Wrexham's Theatre Clwyd (revitalising in-house productions) in the 1990s might easily have inspired, say, Stephen Edwards at the enterprising Derby Playhouse or Hamish Glen, whose skill, intelligence and nerve at interspersing touring productions with superbly bold in-house programming as a shrewd, economically viable compromise (Sons without Fathers is a well-conceived collaboration with Mehmet Ergen's Arcola Theatre) has made the Belgrade a brand leader today: a house where things happen.

Platonov and  Sophia Voynitseva played by Marianne Oldham

Kaut-Howson's other recent work for the Belgrade was Uncle Vanya – Chekhov again.

Platonov (1878-9, or 1880-82; not staged in Russia till 1957 under Khrushchev, three years before the UK; world premiere in Germany, 1928) is like a set of notebooks for almost every theme Chekhov would tackle in the later years up to The Cherry Orchard in 1904, the year he died. Dvořák died in 1904 too, and the Czech composer's Second Symphony is a similar kind of youthful notebook, ideas on the march, tumbling out, being sorted, not yet pigeonholed, a sort of pile of paper on the floor. 

If all roles, without exception, were nicely acted - although the director might beneficially have rendered their moves and gestures and facial tics a bit more specific - a few stood out instantly.

Jade Williams as the gloriously little-girl like, easily put-downable, nobody-likes-me Maria Grekova, delighted instantly. Like other characters in Chekhov, the world is hurting her. She is impotent, desperate. Perhaps she will find a way out in Communist fanaticism. You meet this flailing character in Russian films, often aged a mere 12 or 13. On the way, but to what?  

Amy McAllister made heart strings ache as the uncontrollable Platonov's unselfish, unlikely (and here definitely not plump) young wife, Sasha: patiently mopping up and keeping a hopeless house in order, patently loved yet unashamedly cheated upon, and not understanding, rather than not minding. Beneath her subservience, hunger for a class change, perhaps, which will not come to her, but might to their (unseen) child.  

Susie Trayling, who trails huge Shakespeare (plus Euripides) credits in her wake, and was Manchester Evening News award-winning star of Anna Karenina at Bolton Octagon (where Kaut-Howson has also directed), excelled. As the seductive, moneyed, amoral yet new-era defining Anna Petrovna, always popping up as if her horse had just happened to go lame beyond the hedge, eager for a lusty shag but perhaps something rather more, she gave the show extra momentum.  

Actually, it was amazing how this staging, especially early on, got through so much concentrated stuff at a lope or a gallop. No flagging except on perhaps two occasions: not bad, in Chekhov. An amiable, if fatal, schemer, forever working on some new wheeze – and Trayling did have the facial and gestural variety – Anna Petrovna was a bit of a winner in this show, even while she is another of its numerous losers in life (an enduring Chekhov theme, still going strong with Gaev and Ranevskaya).

The attendant unpredictability in the characters' sex lives, or the concessions and rebounds they entail (think of Varya and Lopakhin in The Cherry Orchard; a pity Chekhov couldn't throw his light on gay issues and Tchaikovsky-like angsts), is another way the playwright uses to point up those wider societal shifts and uncertainties.  

Platonov's ultimate demise hangs on all this: Lenin's early regime (1917-23) may almost have preached free love, in some's eyes, but Chekhov has already mapped out the disasters that await it: the wraiths (like Sasha), or moppers-up (like Simon Scardifield's medic, Dr. Nikolai Triletsky, an incipient commentator on unfolding disasters, who may have suffered from the cutting floor).

'Jack Laskey's Platonov was almost entirely impossible to fathom'

 Scardifield didn't impact on me to start with; he does have those little facial tweaks and ticks, incipient gestures and artful finishes, self-adduced rather than directorial, and not all convinced me.  

But he won through. Not exactly an Astrov (Chekhov himself, remember, was a medical student), still naïve, but with the outsider's perception; though cuckolded, potentially wise before his years, though not yet; still incapacitated by doubts, inactive, holding back. The characterisation was a good one, from an actor whose features might make you think he had a Russian granny too. Chekhov in Hell at the Soho Theatre features, as it happens, among Scardifield's credits. Here he offered us his Triletsky in Hell, inspiringly well. 

To render a six-hour play less than three- requires compromises and skill. Perhaps by the end one was just wearying of these fretful, often self-indulgent, semi-competents, relieved when the gunshot enabled us to go home;.

Yet in a way, it could be the six-hour version that holds not just added, but crucial interest. A major sub-plot, even co-plot, was sacrificed, along with the many characters sustaining it. This worked, even increasing the claustrophobia; but even for a Chekhov-savvy audience, it risked the repetitive, and even the hackneyed.  

Still, David Hare and Michael Frayn have both offered palatable trimmings of the play to half-length. It would be churlish not to suggest Kaut-Howson, who also adapted, has not made a good and above all consistent attempt here. 

What of the supposed ‘update'? In almost three hours I noticed just one allusion to post- Great Patriotic War Russia; there were doubtless more, but not nearly well enough pointed to impact. And what's the point of (uniquely) amending the Russian Voynitzeva to ‘Voynitzev'? A misprint? Or to help intellectually stunted audience members?  

Conversely, what did work was that the smutty room, with its sordid funishings, became timeless. The overvaunted ‘update' simply didn't matter. I'm sure plebeian nurseries looked pretty much the same in 1880.

Designer Iona McLeish, however, whose all-purpose shambles I praised at the start, and whose costumes were just fine for the piece, comes up with some beautifully evocative colour photos in the programme, exploring the idea of ‘corrosion' via a recent Hungarian toxic catastrophe (trees smeared rust-red, etc.) – not just an interesting but a brilliant correlation.

But then produced an aluminium sheeting backdrop (‘factory' ‘corruption', etc.) that, mirror effects apart, made scant impact and little contribution at all. German theatrical experimentation is, or tends to be, a bit like that. Concept design needs to bring something meaningful with it. 

Mark Jax (with impressive credit list, Stephen Joseph, Scarborough and Edinburgh to Salisbury Playhouse and Exeter; but above all, the RNT) as the elderly, or older, ultra gruff Osip (‘seen it all') impinged increasingly on the plot, though again seemed less-defined, less-directed and worked upon, than he deserved. One rather liked the two retainers, Yakov and Vassily, who sneaked in from time to time, spared the cutter's scissors or invented to cover the chair moving.  

Tom Canton and Marianne Oldham, closest friend and friend's pining wife, added to the mix: he, almost tediously benign but saved by a posh white suit; she quite splendidly flirty (yes, another) in pursuit of Platonov. Both roles, he especially, felt over-cut, their full raison d'être reduced. But it is she who, spurned, wields the fatal knife, or barrel.  

Marianne's Oldham's Sophia - 'quite splendidly flirty in pursuit of Platonov'

The shooting interpretation here emerges as rather feeble echo of The Killing or Morse I'd have preferred Laskey's Platonov to be run over by a train (as, I gather, in the original), which would – surely? - have provided a far more effective, cogent finale (bolstered by sound effects), not tying it all down to womanizing and Ruth Ellis-style piqued revenge.

In the original, wandering in confusion, buffeted by circumstance, he is taken away by circumstance. In a sense, by the vast Russian elements. The sort of comic-ironic death one might expect to befall someone like Simeonov-Pischik. 

That would also have provided appetising possibilities for Sound Designer Paul Bull, and for Bolesław Rawski's music, which I thought pretty good, bearable, and unobtrusively beneficial throughout. Possibly he and Kaut-Howson worked together in Poland, or at least saw each other's work there. Alex Wardle's lighting design, initially deliberately bland, was fine: the national tour of Birdsong has already shown Belgrave audiences his considerable talents. 

And what happened?  Well, as a well-worn actor of copious talent, who could have taken almost any of these Platonov roles (above all the title role) effortlessly, and his teenage actor son reminded me in the bar, in Chekhov nothing is supposed to happen.  

But it was a lousy idea – though increasingly common these days – not to include any substantial plot summary in the programme, which needn't have given away the dénouement. For many Belgrade punters, that was probably nigh-on disastrous. Everything the programme did include was admirable, not to be ditched. But not seven or more Belgrade pages at the expense of a synopsis, surely?  

I rather like the comment on Arcola's website: ‘shines a light on this band of disaffected thirty-somethings – too old to move with the times, and too young to let go of their dreams'. Perhaps that partly does the job. The 19th century's late twenties/early 30s are perhaps our upper teens and early 20s: it's as if there's not just one Trofimov in this play, bumbling through a meaningless education, but half a dozen of them. It could have been set in a Brideshead Oxford with little problem or loss.

Actually the one who is the Trofimov, Oliver Hoare's Isaac Vengerovich, is one of the most successful performances. The student does know where he's going, does despise the ineptitude, lack-a-daisical manner and endless procrastination of those around him; will, perhaps, fit into the Soviet society that will soon emerge (or in this reading, has already emerged). He has energy; he is trippable, but has the nous to recover.

He is almost a one-man official opposition in this floundering, meandering household. He looks and sounds as if he would gladly throttle them all; but he is, just possibly, the one who might be able to save them. Hoare, still young, trained in Bristol and is pretty clearly on his way.

Jack Laskey's Platonov was almost entirely impossible to fathom. And that, arguably, was his impressive strength. From the comic turns, almost Richard III jollity and teasing at the start – a sure-fire prelude to disaster in Chekhov & co. – he runs through sinister trysts with old girlfriends, resisting or not resisting seduction, heartless husband, incompetent breadwinner (we never see a whisper of his work; Chekhov's invariable idlers are often idle only because he chooses to present them incomplete), a sort of Mr. Punch one can easily imagine battering the baby.

Never once did Laskey, a young actor able – possibly unlike Rupert Everett, whom he may resemble in manner more than looks - to make himself seem older than the rest, not make us feel uneasy. A wreck of a man in this so-called ‘wreck' of a play, a nervy, clever-clogs, risk-taking, cuckoo near-psychopath (Jack Nicholson, surely?), he almost revels in exuding endless threat. It is the ultimate irony, and inevitability, that he will be the one to succumb to it.  

Roderic Dunnett 

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