Review: THEATRE: The Wood Demon Playhouse, London

Click to follow
Shaw once congratulated Chekhov on his insight that, in the real world, Hedda Gablers are tragic precisely because they don't end up shooting themselves. It took Chekhov some time to make this discovery. His early play, The Wood Demon, enjoyably staged now in a rare revival by Anthony Clark at the Playhouse, is particularly revealing about his development as a dramatist because he reworked its raw material into the masterly Uncle Vanya.

In both plays, the middle-aged protagonist (here portrayed by Brian Protheroe) is haunted by failure and for identical reasons. The realisation that he has wasted his best years idolising and slaving to support a selfish intellectual fraud of a brother-in-law coincides with an unrequited infatuation with this professor's bored young wife, Yelena. But whereas in The Wood Demon this mid-life crisis is the spur to a defiant, point-making suicide, followed by a final act of romantic pairings-off among the survivors, in Uncle Vanya it produces a farcically humiliating anti-climax that changes nothing. Pointing his gun at the professor rather than himself, Vanya misses: twice. It's the story of his life - a life that here is not granted the salvation of art's neat endings and reversals.

If the later play takes its name from the leading loser, it's significant that The Wood Demon is named after a character Chekhov seems to want to present in a predominately positive light. Khrushchov (Cal Macaninch) - the young, environmentally minded landowner - is none the less the most stilted presence in the play, at times as wooden as his beloved trees in his priggish-sounding Tolstoyan moralisings and in his humble last- act recognition of his own misjudgements.

Inviting a much more complex response, Astrov, his counterpart in Vanya, is a once-fervent idealist whom the dullness of provincial life has turned into a futile self-hating drunkard. Plain, plucky, constructive Sonya would be just the woman to help him fulfill his dreams, but he only has eyes for the languid, undeserving Yelena. There's no equivalent irony in the earlier play, where the main thing that delays the eventual match between Khrushchov and the quite differently conceived Sonya (Amanda Ryan) is her prejudiced distrust of his peasant-imitating ways.

Exuding a wonderful, almost camp air of affrontedness, Philip Voss is excellent as Serebryakov, the hypochondriacal professor whose savage discontent makes everyone feel that they are being held personally to blame for his old age. As his young wife, the striking Abigail Cruttenden could afford to be more irritatingly indolent. One of her suitors in The Wood Demon, which has several characters who were dropped from Vanya, is Adam Godley's highly amusing Fydor. Got up in Cossack gear and rather fancying himself as a dashing operatic hero, this lanky wastrel son of a wealthy landowner endearingly fails to create the intended man-of-the-world impression: "I've done everything," he brags to Yelena. "I've even eaten goldfish soup once or twice. But I've never stolen wives from illustrious professors." There have been better chat-up lines.

If all the rest of Chekhov's works (including Vanya) had been lost, The Wood Demon would still come across as a play that is in the thrilling process of out-growing the conventions to which it at times clunkily defers. Some of the staging here (a tendency, say, to move people centre-stage for a big speech) perhaps points up the different levels of evolution too sharply. But how enterprising of the Playhouse, under its new management, to give us this rarity rather than yet another Seagull.

Booking to Oct (0171-839 4401)