Another week, another extraordinary Chekhov revival. The plays may be well over a century old, but no living playwright has caught the temperature of our times half as well. His stagnant rural Russia is the perfect expression of our own flatlining economy. In the frustrations of ordinary folk, you can sense a revolution fermenting.
Helena Kaut-Howson’s searing contemporary spin on his untitled debut – often staged as ‘Platanov’ – confirms all this. In the last year, we’ve seen his all-time classics sparkle including Benedict Andrews’s ‘Three Sisters’ and Headlong’s ‘The Seagull’ (arriving in Richmond next week), but even this flawed first effort – unstaged and unpublished in the playwright’s lifetime, and here cut from six hours to three – nails the grinding exasperation of hopelessness without horizons.
Actually, in the first half at least, writer-director Kaut-Howson makes her version – entitled ‘Sons Without Fathers’ – stand alongside Chekhov’s best. Jack Laskey’s unkempt Platanov, a small-town teacher whose forsaken potential and ambition, is happiest when railing at the world. Like a Gatsby of the dacha, he leads one party into the next, calling the vodka shots and flitting between mistresses, despite wholeheartedly loving his wife. The escapism is infantile: a piss-up in a nursery.
The second half gets bogged down in his tangled love-life like a farce in slow-motion, sluggish with melancholy, but the babbling chaos of the first is so gripping and the cast so unanimously engrossing, it hardly matters. Laskey is superb: lank-haired, red-eyed and manically charismatic. Simon Scardifield, as his brother-in-law and local doctor, is even better; an infuriating jester neglecting his duties to drink himself senseless. Strong work too from a headstrong Marianne Oldham and Mark Jax as the unhinged horse-thief Osip.
This is super stuff, by turns forlorn and hilarious, that absolutely confirms Chekhov as our contemporary.
By Matt Trueman