This adaptation of a Chekhov story about the fall of Bourgeois Man has found a perfect home at CPT, with its spirit-of-1968 name and location on the edge of the former countercultural hotbed Drummond Street.
Provincial doctor Ragin experiences a tragic arc of hope, despair, foreign travel, madness and death in a production that – in a good way – could have appeared at any time in the last 40 odd years: white face paint, minimal grey set and costumes, matching Jesus beards for the men. Evoking the gulags and the Maze, this is both the visual language of the dispossessed and the stuff of fringe, and there is a satisfyingly concrete purpose to ‘Ward No 6’s bare-bones aesthetic.
It’s not perfect: it takes 20 minutes to hit its stride and the ending feels snatched away from the audience, but for 45 minutes in the middle this is an absolutely superb mix of psychological heft and energetic physical theatre. Harry Lobek as Ragin and Oliver Lavery as both the incarcerated paranoiac Gromov and Ragin’s nemesis, Dr Hobotov, stand out, and despite the multitasking and consistent scenic inventiveness – including a brilliantly worked visual travelogue created by a kind of beach windbreak – the narrative is crisp and unsparing in its destruction of its hero. Only Charlotte Blake rings false: her insistent one-note grotesquerie seems out of place in a work about shadings of behaviour and perception, and she’s sometimes a distracting presence when not involved directly in scenes.
This is a minor quibble: for the most part, this is an imaginative and dynamic production, realised with passion and wit. If, as Gromov claims, ‘As long as prisons and madhouses exist, someone must be shut up in them,’ the same could be said of theatres, and on this showing that’s no punishment.