By Anton Chekhov
Version by David Hare
Directed by Jonathan Kent
Set design by Tom Pye
The Young Chekhov Season (3 in a day)
Chichester Festival Theatre
10th October 2015, 10.30 am
SEE ALSO: Young Chekhov Season Overview (linked)
(The playscript gives the useful roles and relationships missing from the play programme!)
James McArdle as Mikhail Platonov, a schoolteacher
Jade Williams as Sasha, Platonov’s wife
Nicholas Day as Colonel Triletsky, Sasha’s father
Joshua James as Doctor Nikolai Triletsky, Sasha’s brother
Nina Sosanya as Anna Petrovna, widow of General Voynitzev
Pip Carter as Sergei Voynitzev, Anna’s stepson
Olivia Vinall as Sofya, Sergei’s wife
Sarah Twomey as Maria Grekova, young chemistry student
Jonathan Coy as Porfiro Glagolyev, neighbour, landowner
Mark Donald as Kiril Glagolyev, his son
David Verry as Pavel Scherbuk, wealthy merchant
Brian Pettifer as Timofei Bugrov, merchant
Des McAleer as Osip, horse thief
Col Farrell as Marko, court writ server
Beverley Klein as Katya, maid to Sofya
Mark Penfold as Vassilli, servant
Nebli Bassani as Yakov, servant
The play was Chekhov;s first effort, aged twenty, written in 1878, but was discovered only in 1923, and the first Western production was in New York in 1960. Chekhov never got round to a title, so it’s also known as a Country Scandal. Fatherlessness and The Play Without A Title. The original text would play at between five and seven hours (it’s variously quoted as five, six and seven) … with three plays in a day in Chichester’s Young Chekhov Season, that’s a terrifying thought. No! They won’t, surely! We booked for the three plays in a day … Platonov, Ivanov and er,The Seagullov. So we’re seated for Platonov at 10.30 a.m.
The set took our breath away. The same base set is used for all three. Real trees surround it. The floor of the stage is rough thick planks, with weeds and flowers growing between them. There’s a lake at the back (covered by sloping boards in the first play) then a stream at the side with a small rough bridge to a leafy island picnic area. There’s water at the front too. The set design by Tom Pye is the best we’ve seen this year, and it’s been a very good year indeed. Costumes by Emma Ryott are also first rate.
Act One: everyone assemble – Platonov extreme left, Pavel – seated
Platanov, like Don Juan, is irresistible to women. His entrance into the play is held back. When we entered the theatre a good fifteen minutes before the start, Sergei (Platonov’s doctor brother-in-law) and the young attractive widow, Anna Petrovna (Nina Sonanya) are lounging in outdoor chairs chatting softly while playing a languid game of chess. In the background, a servant sits plucking a chicken. Characters assemble at Anna’s estate (her heavily mortgaged estate) from various directions … we had no idea which one would be Platonov, then suddenly Platonov and his wife Sasha come wading through the lake from the rear, both dressed as peasants, in strong contrast to the assembled landowners and merchants. It’s a powerful entrance, and instantly James McArdle creates the character … Platanov is a man with rock star charisma, and has eschewed his social class for life as a rural schoolmaster, complete with wife and child. Trouble is, all the women fancy him. The smouldering sexy widow Anna Petrovna, the blushing innocent little student, Maria and then Anna’s stepson, Sergei, arrives with his pretty wife, Sofya. They had heard that Sofya vaguely knew Platonov at Moscow University five years earlier, so he conceals himself as she arrives … then she sees him. We know at once there was always more to it.
The scene ends with the characters assembling on the island for a picnic while Platonov and Sofya talk … Act One ends with a marvellous piece of theatre. There’s a back screen for projecting sky and sunsets to one side, and they troop off one at a time in single file, silhouetted against the evening sky. It’s a triumph of lighting design.
Osip (Des McAleer)
Platonov (James McArdle) and Anna Petrovna (Nina Sosyana) in Act 2
In Act Two we learn that the rich worthies want Platonov crippled … Osip the horse thief is the man to do it. In another set design moment, full size railway lines plunge out from the back to the front of the stage, and the house at the side is Platonov’s house. Osip is on good terms with Sasha, Platonov’s wife. There are comings and goings with Anna Petrovna intent on getting off with Platonov. It ends with Sasha’s attempted suicide (when she finds out) in front of an approaching train.
Sofya (Olivia Vinall) and Platonov (James McArdle) in the schoolroom
Act Three, and the set has changed again … a schoolroom fills the set with tiny primary age chairs (used to hilarious effect). Platonov is asleep on a filthy mattress, dressed in very grubby Long Johns with holes in them. Sasha has thrown him out, but their child is ill. They all come to the schoolroom, with Platonov desperate to be left in peace. It’s hard to believe in the context, but it’s all extremely funny. Great comedy direction and acting.
Father and son: Porfiro (Jonathan Coy) and Kiril (Mark Donald)
Act Four (Chekhov went for four acts) and the versatility of the Chichester stage is shown when the schoolroom set simply disappears out of sight below the stage. This is where everything comes home to roost. Sofya wants him to run away with her. Sasha tries to poison herself. He can’t resist flirting with the innocent little Maria. There are memorable lines as when Sofya falls to her knees pleading ‘Save me!’ to Platonov, and Anna says: ‘Sofya. Never give them that. You’re a woman. Never drop to your knees.’
It’s Chekhov. You’ve guessed the ending. Bang!
We agreed it was easily the best play of the day. In the script, it’s the longest too, though running time was the same as the others … there are more stage directions perhaps. So the least known, but the best? The Independent preview says:
For a man famous for banishing melodrama from the 19th century stage, it’s totally melodramatic: there are bandits in the woods, a woman throwing herself across train tracks and a shooting. Plus, it’s farcically funny.
Coming first in the day while we’re fresh must have helped. Also that terrific set was seen for the first time in the day, so had maximum impact. It was by far the funniest. In the end, I suspect it comes down to a higher proportion of David Hare. He was selecting from 5 hours (Wiki) or 6 or 7 hours (both mentioned) of text and distilling it to two hours. It was his choice. With the other two, he has to follow the known plot curve and text. Here there must have been considerably more choice about what to put in.
The cast, not for the first time this year, had us thinking ‘Where does so much talent come from?’ We hadn’t seen many of them before, but individual and ensemble acting was at the highest level from all of them.
But there is another reason why this play stood out as the best of the three. James McArdle. The very best actors bring an aura or power or total confidence onto stage with them. We both thought him at the Kenneth Branagh / Edward Bennett / Alex Waldmann / Mark Rylance level. Yes, not only Premier League, but top few in the Premier League. He made the part work with a swagger, his comedy moments had tears of laughter drawn from us, but you also felt his panic at this God-given gift of appeal to women. Watching this, if I were a casting agent, I’d be looking for a rock star biopic for him. He stays mild Scots throughout, but hey, that never stopped Sean Connery.
Overall play rating: * * * * * (Five stars)
Season programme, which for this trio works. I thought the cast lists would have benefitted from adding information (as I have) from the play texts on sale in the theatre … all three plays are in one Young Chekhov programme.
A lot. Some predicated by text.