In 1998 I reviewed a production of Dracula at the Hackney Empire which was probably played for laughs but not for the outright hoots of derision it rightly received. Three actors from that production turn up in Oleg Mikhailov's breathtakingly dire Chekhov Double Bill at the Shaw Theatre; they may have learnt something from their earlier experience, as their performances are less monumentally badly pitched than most of their fellows', but they plainly haven't yet realised that best of all is not to get involved with projects that are misconceived from beginning to end.
Chekhov wrote comedies; even his major works were intended to be humorous in many places, and his one-act plays – "vaudevilles", he called them – unambiguously so. What he did not write (and I've double-checked the scripts) were vomit routines, fart routines, juggling waiters, any unicyclists or a running gag of wedding guests bellowing, "Shut the fuck up!" Playing for laughs is fine, but play for the laughs that are there, rather than turning these comedies into leaden-paced torrents of clowning with an unsubtlety that would shame a journeyman secondary-school production.
The Wedding is the main offering here, at forty-five minutes which should have been less than half an hour. Actors are costumed and made-up like Punch & Judy puppets and give huge, slow, exaggerated performances to match. Every gag is telegraphed; for the interpolated physical routines, everyone on stage freezes just in case those few of us who haven't covered our eyes in embarrassment or outright agony might miss them. It is preceded by The Jubilee, in which the deadly pace and wildly exaggerated characterisations – which nevertheless manage fundamentally to misjudge the mood of the characters and the play alike – are established. Comic voices are overdone far past the point of unintelligibility: one character in this piece sounds like a pipistrelle on helium. But at least here, unlike in The Wedding, the annoying falsettos are confined to the women.
To allow Mikhailov to get away with these atrocities simply because he is Russian, and therefore might be considered to have a sort of permission to maltreat Chekhov in this way, would be an act of cultural cowardice. The only rational interpretation is that he thinks he can do better than the playwright, and – how to put this politely? – he is wrong, wrong, WRONG.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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