Theatre: Not a dry actor in the house

Chekhov in a swimming pool? With a jazz-playing cast? A daring departure for the Maly Theatre of St Petersburg.
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The Independent Culture
If you belong to the vast majority of people who don't automatically associate Chekhov's plays with moonlit skinny-dipping and jazz music, prepare to have your prejudices overturned by Lev Dodin's bewitching production of Platonov, brought now by the Maly Theatre of St Petersburg to the BITE season at the Barbican. Michael Frayn - who in the Eighties had a big hit with Wild Honey, an adroit adaptation of this long and unwieldy apprentice work by the young Chekhov - referred to the "pervasive erotic atmosphere" on the Voynitzev family estate in the Russian provinces where the play is set. That description begins to look like an understatement when you find yourself confronted by the kind of sensuality - at once comic, abandoned and despairing - in which Platonov is drenched.

In St Petersburg, where I first saw Dodin's production, the piece is called Play Without a Name. Found in the safe deposit in a Moscow bank years after Chekhov's death, this sprawling, unbaptised tragi-farce - which would run for about six hours uncut - has gone under many titles, including Don Juan in the Russian Manner and Without Patrimony.

As Dodin comments, fatherlessness is not just the fate of the hero - an aimless, frustrated, accidentally lady-killing schoolmaster who operates like an electric eel in a barrel of dead provincial fish. Because of its posthumous discovery, the play, too, is thought to have an orphan quality, and in need of adoption and reform. The many consequent reworkings range from Nikita Mikhailov's film Unfinished Piece for Mechanical Piano, a beautiful montage of themes from the play, and several short stories, to Trevor Griffiths's National Theatre adaptation that converted it into a tidier-minded class-war parable than any Chekhov can have envisaged.

Dodin takes the unusual step of sticking to the original text (albeit pruned to around three and three-quarter hours), but creates a vision of the play that is startlingly fresh. The dominant image here is water. It's not so much a case of there not being a dry eye in the house as of there not being a dry actor. The production is set in the open air around the bath house on the river in the estate where the magnificent Platonov of Sergei Kurishev - an actor who has that mix of the strapping and the sensitive, the ugly and the beautiful that makes Depardieu so compelling - arrives and destroys the precarious honeymoon of Sergei (Oleg Dmitriev) and Sofya (Irini Tychinina). From the start, when Tatyana Shestakova's Anna swims through the green, glimmering water to greet Platonov, and he moves a piece on the chessboard on the sandy bank as though resuming a contest begun the previous year, the production powerfully pulls you into a world of dangerous summer languor.

Agreeing with me that it's a wonder they haven't evolved webbed feet and hands, the leading actors explain the imaginative rationale for inundating the play with water and jazz - an option that has involved every member of the company learning a musical instrument. Rehearsing a scene where you have to swim around naked while tooting on a trumpet must feel a shade incongruous on dry land.

Oleg Dmitriev says that water and jazz are there to represent "limitless sensuality". Whether hurling themselves into the river in tragi-comic suicide attempts, frolicking around in it in nude intimacy, or performing dotty backward flips into it as a pert response to insults, the characters are here defined amphibiously. As his amorous entanglements tighten round him, Platonov is reduced to a netted fish. In a wonderful scene, the estranged honeymooners run into each other in the shower room at the top of the bath house and stand side by side naked under the cold, desolating spray like an updated version of the exiled Adam and Eve.

Jazz positively pours into the production, the company regularly turning into a band that belts out such numbers as Sidney Bechet's incorrigibly catchy "Bonjour Paris", or conveying, as individual characters, undertones of feeling that can't be verbalised, or, then again, intruding - through the call of their instruments - into scenes where they aren't physically present. To reach this level of seamless ensemble, a production requires a long, considered gestation, and Dodin began exploring Platonov with the actors when rehearsing his 1994 Cherry Orchard, deliberately placing in tandem a play from the start of Chekhov's career, and his swan song, both entailing the loss of an estate.

The beautiful aquatic set establishes the soul of this staging, and the Maly must be one of the few companies where the designer, Alexei Porie-Koshits, is also the director of finance. That might seem a paradoxical pairing when you contemplate the Platonov design which, not so economically, reduces the seating capacity of their theatre, and is surely a headache to install in the touring venues. (When I was in St Petersburg, it had sprung a leak, lowering the water level and requiring the taller actors to maintain the illusion of depth by never standing completely upright during immersion.) Porie-Kishits laughs and comments cheerfully that his close friend, their producer in Paris, tends to call him "an idiot" on surveying his designs. Talking to this man with two hats brings home to me how maintaining the distinctive vision of the Maly company demands a combination of savvy and sacrifice in the economic chaos of contemporary Russia.

Government subsidy has, for example, dwindled to the payment of the minimal wage of US$20-30 a month. There is now no such thing as a trades union in Russia and the theatre could, if they were bloodyminded, pay actors no more than this. It's not surprising, given these conditions, that international touring now makes up around 50 per cent of the Maly's revenue. Touring also allows for a bizarre form of cheating that is officially countenanced. When the company is abroad, the fiction is maintained that they are losing profit on the empty theatre back home (in fact, it is filled with another piece from the repertory) and the government, though under no illusion, compensates them for that supposed loss.

The philosophy of the theatre hinges on Dodin's continuing relationship with an ensemble of some 60 actors, many of them ex-pupils of his from the State Theatre Institute, on protracted rehearsal periods, and the retention of productions in the repertory for many years so that they mature and gather different meanings.

Take the show Gaudeamus, a sort of blackly surreal Carry On Sergeant about the Soviet Army Construction Battalions, an outfit that covered a multitude of unsavoury sins. This came to Britain in 1991 and featured a line-up of shaven-headed youths who were then Dodin's first-year students. The piece is still in the Maly's repertory, the cast no longer shaven-headed because they have graduated to parts in other productions where a full head of hair is useful. And, according to Dodin, the show continues to shift in significance. He recalls the "tense silences" that interrupted the laughter, and the young people who remained in the theatre at the end, "with their heads in their hands", at the time of the war with Chechnya.

It's an approach to theatre that would be a good deal easier to sustain with Communist levels of subsidy. But the Maly ethos survives in the cold gusts of capitalism. "I would say that during the last 10 years, there have been only five or six people who have resigned, and five or six people who have been hired," says Porai-Koshits. "And some of the younger actors who have to leave because they could not survive on what they are paid at the Maly, go out and get day jobs for money and come back to perform in the evening."

So the matchless vision of wayward sensuality imparted by this staging of Platonov paradoxically represents a triumph of purposeful idealism.

`Platonov' is at The Barbican from tonight until Sat (0171-638 8891)