Chichester Festival Theatre
24 October 2015
Constant theatregoing has its disadvantages: you get tired of “styles”, popular writers, or “in-vogue” directors; you get bored with the shortcomings of “stars” from other media gorging on roles beyond their skill sets; mediocrity being perceived as the new greatness can chill the marrow; and the gullibility and naivety of audiences can make your fear for the form.
But there are advantages too: you can see the first new play by a major new writing talent and then follow her/his progress; you can witness the stunning debut of a gifted performer or director or designer; you can spot the development of a trend or the beginning of the decay of a genre; you can stumble across a career-defining breakthrough performance of an actor, visionary direction from a theatre director or unbeatable design from a designer. Sometimes, rarely, these things can happen simultaneously.
David Hare and Jonathan Kent have been striving to complete a body of work involving the early career of Anton Chekhov since the early 2000s. Both Ivanov and Platonov were adapted by Hare for Kent when he co-helmed the Almeida with Ian MacDiarmid, but they never got around to The Seagull there and as Platonov opened when the horror of the September 11 Twin Towers destruction was only hours old, unsurprisingly attention was focussed on other matters. Now, with the Young Chekhov season now playing at the Chichester Festival Theatre, Hare and Kent have their chance to seize the day.
Aided by Tom Pye’s extraordinarily versatile and hauntingly beautiful scenic design, which, boldly and firmly, evokes a clear sense of a sort of fading Russian Arcadia, and the absolutely astonishingly good lighting from Mark Henderson, Kent brings Hare’s refashioned, truncated (thankfully) and rejuvenated version of Platonov to brilliant, evocative life.
But let’s be clear: it is not the carefully calibrated skills of the creatives which makes this Platonov one for the history books; which makes it seem impossible to imagine a world where the three plays in the Young Chekhov season do not transfer to London and play to capacity crowds hungry for revitalised classic theatre; which makes you wonder how it could be you ever had to sit through dull, worthy and distinctly unfunny performances of any Chekhovian writing. No. It’s not the writers, the director, the other creatives or the repertory company assembled for the project.
It is James McArdle.
As career-defining, star-making performances go, McArdle’s virile, vibrant, and enthrallingly casual turn as Platonov must rank as one of the greatest in modern times.
It’s not as if McArdle has no form: he was magnificent as James I in The James Plays, matched Andrew Scott (no mean effort) in Emperor and Galilean and with Jack Lowden made Chariots of Fire something much more than just a play about running, was a tough Malcolm in Macbeth at the Globe and, of course, previously at Chichester his bewildered tutor, Aleksey, was the plaything of Janie Dee.
Ivanov, in this Young Chekhov season, shows his range as an actor clearly: here he is raucous, explosively energetic, an almost anti-Don Juan with a penchant for itch-scratching – entirely different, utterly transformed from the buttoned up judgmental Lvov he delivers so exquisitely in Ivanov.
But the thing about McArdle in Platonov is that, having seen him in action there, it is difficult to imagine anyone else pulling it off with anything like the charisma, the brio, the sheer, dazzling skill. The fizzy and fizzing heart of the production is McArdle’s: on his shoulders, success is achieved or is lost.
The play itself, even with Hare’s considerable help, is still a bizarre concoction. Melodrama and farce, dancing against a Russian background, produce uneven results, but the rich variety of the supporting cast and the central notion – that the Russian men of the area are so awful that a wastrel sort-of-schoolteacher/husband can become a frenzied object of desire for the womenfolk, a kind of man-as-sex-symbol trope (hence anti-don Juan) – produces some genuinely funny moments. Equally, there are sections which strike one as odd at best and ludicrous at worst.
McArdle, however, like some sort of theatrical sandpaper, smooths over the cracks of the play and holds it altogether by the sheer force of his magnetic performance, and the realistic approach he takes to Platonov’s unrealistic circumstances makes the play buzz with gusto and provides a happy platform for his colleagues to do better work than the play itself might have suggested.
There is a marvellous sequence in Act Two, when Platonov, hung-over, dishevelled, dirty, dressed only in absurd, disgusting long-johns, is hiding out in his schoolroom, only to be visited by a succession of major characters, all of whom either want to love him or kill him or drink vodka with him. It’s a masterpiece of comic absurdity from everyone involved, but it could not have worked as well as it did without the energetic groundwork achieved by McArdle in the First Act.
Nina Sosanya is delightful as the letter-writing Anna “You haven’t seduced anyone, have you?” Petrovna, one of Platonov’s hunters. She has a delicate wit about her delivery which ensures smiles, even when hard issues are being discussed. But she can knock back vodka like a submarine gunner. Her marvellous scene with the dishevelled Platonov where she queries whether there is anything worse than being an educated woman foreshadows scenes of greater import in later Chekhov plays. Sosanya handles everything with precisely the right soft spear.
Jade Williams excels as the mousy, demanding Sasha – her near suicide, Anna Karenina style, is both funny and frightening. She establishes a precise and complicated Sasha who works extremely well with McArdle’s Platonov and contrasts nicely with Sosanya’s Anna and Olivia Vinall’s demanding-in-a-different way Sofya, the woman who can’t silence Platonov with her feminine wiles so chooses other, more drastic measures.
Jonathan Coy, Pip Carter, David Verry, Mark Penfold, Beverley Klein (wonderful pheasant plucking!) and, especially, Nicholas Day (a booming, mad eyed Triletsky) all give excellent support, providing a range of irascible, disturbed and disturbing characters against whom Platonov can be measured. Des McAleer gets a special mention as the splenetic would be assassin Osip; he is over-ripe and wonderful in a kind of Alfred Dolittle way.
Col Farrell makes something out of very little as the messenger Marko, and Brian Pettifier excels as the somewhat inspired Bugrov: “Is there a man alive who, in his heart, doesn’t prefer doing it with servants?” Sarah Twomey also leaves a real impression as Maria, Platonov’s “sainted enemy” with a fine line in blushing, and there is truly amusing work from Mark Donald, whose Paris and money obsessed Glagolyev is a finely wrought face-stamping joy.
The play has it all: sex, fireworks, attempted suicides, contemplated suicide, a stroke victim, hired assassins, murder and witty, witty banter. And vodka. Lots of vodka. It’s a heady comic mix sewn together with the kinds of observations about life, love and the futility of both which Chekhov would come to explore in great detail later in his career.
Another sumptuous production of a superb Hare adaptation of an unwieldy and slightly schizophrenic early Chekhov work, made just that much more glorious by a committed cast and the undeniable star presence of James McArdle.