Chekhov’s drama about love and creative effort begins with failure. Konstantin, an aspiring playwright, has presented his first drama for a small audience in this outpost of the Russian countryside. Everyone scratches their heads at his gnomish abstractions and dismisses him, except for the doctor, Dorn, who is more open-minded: “I didn’t get it but I’ll remember.”
Jamie Lloyd’s radical, stripped-down and oddly gripping production, using Anya Reiss’ brilliant adaptation, may well be aspiring to Konstantin’s ideal of creating a new theatrical form. This is not Chekhov as we know it, nor theater as we know it, certainly not in the West End. Its flagrant lack of naturalism is reminiscent of Lloyd’s radically radical Cyrano de Bergerac, with actors repeatedly settling into plastic chairs and speaking into microphones on Soutra Gilmour’s set of chipboard walls.
Whereas that show was full of music, puns, and bouncing energy off the stage, it feels like this one is soft and deliberately soporific, with some mumbled lines and some swallowed words, as if these characters are engaging in intimate pillow talk. or speaking their last words as the life drains from them.
The actors stand almost lifeless, moving forward for one scene and back again. Sometimes they sound dreamy or drunk, other times they seem like they’re sleeping in their chairs, or immobilized, not quite human.
For a work that repeatedly raises questions about performance, this production represents those questions. Emilia Clarke’s aspiring actress Nina talks about how much performers move their limbs on stage, but these real-life counterparts move minimally.
After the interval, the walls partially withdraw as if the few traditional theatrical elements that appear are slowly deconstructing around the actors. If I didn’t have such a seamless staging, this could be a read-through rehearsal or scratch night, or even a drama school experiment. Is it all concept and no effect solid? Sometimes it feels like we’re watching The Seagull with Zombies: mannered, frustrating, overly drawn and dragging. But it never fails to be fascinating, and in the scenes that work best, this show is gritty, compelling and powerful: when Konstantin’s actress mother, Arkadina, tells him he’s a “nobody”; when he begs her lover Trigorin to stay with her; when Nina and Trigorin just sit and stare at each other at the back of the stage, while a scene takes place up front.
Clarke is the biggest commercial star, convincing opposite Tom Rhys Harries’s Adonis-esque Trigorin, but the biggest performance comes from Indira Varma as the high-strung mother, who seems the most alive character on stage. Daniel Monks’ Konstantin exudes a morose drowsiness and there’s a charismatic supporting twist from Robert Glenister, but Sorin feels like too little a part for him: we want more and more.
Meanwhile, the comedic roles are uniformly excellent: Jason Barnett’s estate manager, Shamrayev, seethes with anger at these indolent townspeople. Stealing the show from Sophie Wu, one of several characters facing the typically torturous tortures of Chekhov’s unrequited love, Masha brings teen-emo darkness to the tragicomedy with flawless, deadpan deliveries.
Sometimes there is a Beckettian focus to the voice and facial expressions, which creates a hypnotic focus and we lean in to capture the intimacies of these characters. The spell is broken after the interval, when he starts to feel too still, but this is a maverick show that, like Oklahoma! at the Young Vic, shows how dangerous and daring a revival can be. As Dorn concludes about Konstantin’s work: “I was impressed. I still don’t really know what kind.