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Review: Chekhov’s First Play at Playhouse Theatre

By Nigel Smith

LAST week I reviewed a piece for Good News that suffered from being too clever for its own good. This week’s offering at the Playhouse, by complete contrast, is so clever that it’s simply jaw-dropping.

Dead Centre originally presented Chekhov’s First Play in Dublin in 2015, and they have toured it extensively. How it took so long to find its way to Liverpool is a mystery in itself, but while it’s here it deserves to pack houses.

The play now known in the UK by the title Platonov remained unpublished until some 20 years after the author’s death. It was missing its title page when the text was rediscovered among his papers, so it acquired the name of a central character who everyone seems to be awaiting the arrival of. Unlike Godot, Platonov does finally turn up, but his presence causes ructions.

Originally some 5-6 hours in length and with a cast list long enough to send any theatre producer into therapy, the work is widely considered unperformable and, frankly, pretty awful. Directors Ben Kidd and Bush Moukarzel have prepared what might best be thought of as a performing version of the text. Running at 75 minutes flat, it begins by attempting an almost straight performance and then rapidly spirals into an immensely engaging exploration of the difficulties in staging it. Beyond this, it plays with the conventions of theatre altogether and demolishes the whole process before our eyes and ears with immense dexterity.

Entering the theatre, we are asked to take care of the wires, as every seat is provided with a pair of headphones. Through these we hear not only the voices of the actors but also a soundtrack that immerses us completely in their world. Jimmy Eadie and Kevin Gleeson are justly award winners for the sound design, which uses binaural audio to surround us completely.

Bush Mouzarkel begins with his own introduction in front of the curtain, then he steps aside as the play begins but continues to talk us through the action from the wings. It’s like watching a Blu-ray with the director’s commentary turned on, but his voice is right inside our heads and we almost feel as though we are inside his.

If this is beginning to sound like a recipe for a tedious evening then fear not dear reader, for things are not all that they seem. As the actors begin to miss cues, drop entire pages of dialogue or forget where they’re supposed to be moving, Moukarzel descends into despair. Not only are his cast ruining the play, but he’s not even sure any more about his own decisions to cut so much of the text, as it doesn’t make sense.

The eventual arrival of Platonov is little short of genius – a plot and performance twist that ramps the strangeness of the piece up to a whole new level of weird. The director stops talking to us, the cast remove their microphones and parts of their costumes, and the whole thing acquires a dreamlike quality as the deconstruction becomes complete.

Leave all your expectations outside the door, fasten your seatbelt and prepare for an hour and a quarter of theatrical wizardry after which you’ll never look at a play in the same way again.

Chekhov’s First Play is at the Playhouse until Saturday.


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