Chekhov in Hell, Soho Theatre, London
Friday 29 April 2011
Chekhov died of tuberculosis in the German spa of Badenweiler in 1904, aged 44, uttering the famous last words, "I haven't drunk champagne for ages." His coffin arrived in St Petersburg in a railway wagon labelled, "fresh oysters".
Dan Rebellato's 90-minute comedy elaborates on this tragic irony by bringing Chekhov out of a coma one hundred years later. He starts with a sombrely staged deathbed scene, accurately re-created, played in German and Russian, and jumps straight into a modern hospital ward.
There, his one surviving relative, a bolshie niece, expletives not deleted, finds him disoriented and mystified. Docile and undemanding, something of a sad sucker who lets modern life wash noisily all over him, Simon Scardifield's meticulously observed Anton Pavlovich is given a passport by a dodgy Russian "travel agent".
Before you can say "illegal immigrant", he's caught up in a sex trafficking operation in search of a girl called Irina, a Ukrainian prostitute who is vaguely related, perhaps, to the character of the same name in his first success at the Moscow Art Theatre, The Seagull.
That Irina was played by the love of his life, Olga Knipper, who now calls out to him across the century from the Northern Lights. But he's become overwhelmed by therapy sessions, lap-dancing clubs, computer games, Twitter and Russian gun-runners.
We associate the Chekhov of his great plays with unfulfilled yearning, a sense of waste, and the idea that present-day suffering ensures a better future for those who come after. But the impact of the harsh reality never registers in the play, which presents only this sadly disappointed ghost in a series of bitty, satirical scenes from modern life.
Simon Stokes's production keeps the stage busy with quick-change performances from a hard-working small cast of five (plus Anton). Emily Raymond plays an elegant Olga, a police officer and a lap dancer, while Ruth Everett mixes the distraught niece with the sluttish Irina, and Paul Rider focuses mainly on Anton's "namesake", the travel agent.
The play doesn't amount to much because there's no attempt to show how Chekhov would adjust to new circumstances, and a second chance. And the limbo-like design of Bob Bailey, with Brechtian captions, adds only a spurious air of speculation.
To 14 May (020 7478 0100)
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