CHEKHOV GONE WILDE
20/05/2015 - 30/05/2015
After the success of last year’s Shakespeare’s Problems, Theatrewhack returns with a hilarious and irreverent take on the work of Anton Chekhov and Oscar Wilde.
Featuring scenes from some of the great men’s greatest plays, the company explore the themes of love and manners with all their usual verve and energy.
With unconventional staging, inspired casting and a wicked eyebrow raised firmly over proceedings, director Patrick Graham challenges preconceived notions on how Chekhov and Wilde should be presented.
Follow the characters around the space, peering over their shoulders and peeping through windows as they tussle with life, love, death and each other.
“life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about” – Oscar Wilde
Hosted by the delightfully friendly Garnet Station Tiny Theatre – come to dinner before the show for great tapas, crispy wood fired pizzas, dessert, organic wine and craft beer.
Anton Chekhov from The Cherry Orchard, The Bear, The Three Sisters, The Seagull
and Oscar Wilde from, An Ideal Husband, The importance of Being Earnest.
Garnet Station Cafe & Tiny Theatre, 85 Garnet Rd, Westmere,
Auckland, New Zealand
To book phone 09 360 3397
Produced by Jacqui Whall for Theatrewhack
Costumes by Jacqui Whall
Dramaturg Boni Te Rongopai Tukiwaho
Flashes of glory, sadness, silliness and great humanity
Review by Lexie Matheson ONZM 23rd May 2015
New Zealand theatre has always had its share of delightful, larger-than-life theatrical personalities often accompanied by prodigious talent and some names – and bountiful memories – come to mind immediately. Lee Grant, Davina Whitehouse, Kate Harcourt, Elizabeth Moody, David Weatherley, George Henare, Elric Hooper, Mark Hadlow, Tony Richardson, Paul Minifie, Ian Mune, Pat Evison and Raymond Hawthorne dominate a platform in my mind that rollicks, bamboozles, hoodwinks and cackles and I will love them eternally for it.
Tucked away in a far less public space, but nevertheless of critical importance to our evolution as a country of theatre substance, are those characters who have – and do – people our fringes, our non-traditional-venues, our alternative mind-sets and who push our boundaries almost, at times, to breaking point. I’m talking about the ‘Blerta’ family and Bruno Lawrence, Francis Batten and ‘Theatre Action’, Alan Brunton and Sally Rodwell of ‘Red Mole’ fame (‘someday all theatre will be like this’), Peter Falkenburg and ‘Free Theatre’, Lemi Ponifasio of ‘Mau Dance’, Ken Rea with ‘Living Theatre’ and, much more recently, Patrick Graham with ‘Theatrewhack’.
There will be those of you who will disagree, who will have your own personal favourites – my list is anything but comprehensive and wildly subjective – and good on you for that. The theatre, after all, relies for its existence on having a broad range of tastes to satisfy and, it must be said, it’s often hard to assess what’s happening ‘in the now’ from the perspective of some future legacy let alone longevity. All we can ever really say is, “I saw it, it moved me, and I liked it.” We can predict, but when we do we risk attracting such opprobrium as Ken Ring receives. Scientists and meteorologists give no credence to his claims and perhaps you should give none to mine but, well, there you are. Today, I have the pen – the keyboard, actually – and you have the choice whether to read on, or not.
Patrick Graham is a larger-than-life human being and his theatre productions follow suit. He has a big personality and his productions are colonised by characters of not dissimilar dimension. I’ve followed his work in both mainsteam and alternative theatres genres since 2001 and never cease to be impressed by his talent, his capacity to draw good actors around him. To keep them there and, as a writer and director, draw performances of quality from them. He’s tireless, innovative, talented and fragile, and his work – alongside the plays of Victor Rodger, the esoteric creations of Mika and the rare and exceptional productions of Lemi Ponifasio and ‘Mau Dance’ – are among the most consistent and unfailingly exciting performance art currently dotting the City of Sails cultural landscape.
Chekhov Gone Wilde is the latest in a series of works that fall loosely into the category of ‘mash-ups’: bits and bobs from various sources, knitted together around a sometimes elusive theme and put before an audience with something of an in-your-face, ‘take that’ attitude. It usually works, says things about all the pieces, that might be lost in a full-length, conventional production, because of how they are juxtaposed and glued together by an amalgam of Graham’s remarkable knowledge, tip-top theatrical craft and striking intellect.
It’s smart stuff but visceral too. I never fail to be gripped by his conceptualising and am often felled completely by the elegant, vignette-type performances he elicits from his actors.
This production features carefully selected scenes from two of the greatest playwrights of all time – Anton Chekhov and Oscar Wilde – and pits them against each other in a race for love, to avoid love, to reflect on love, to evade love and, finally, to be judged whether decent enough to share love with another human person. There’s cross-gendered performances most of which work very well indeed but mostly, and true enough for both writers, their games of love are played by players each batting for a different side.
The plays chosen are comedies from a catalogue of the writer’s best. From Chekhov we enjoy a scene from The Bear, one from The Seagull, two from The Cherry Orchard and three from The Three Sisters. From Wilde we are gifted two from The Importance of Being Earnest and three from An Ideal Husband.
Each scene stands alone and makes excellent theatre while collectively they paint a picture of the blissful damage done by Cupid, that chubby wee boy with the bow. Graham subtly reminds us that Cupid is from the Latin ‘cupido’ meaning not just romantic love but desire as well and there’s achingly, painfully, plenty of that too.
The whole is bookended by song and dance and the intersections between scenes as we move between performance spaces.* Yes, it’s promenade theatre so the audience moves a few times from the larger tiny space to the really tiny space but we fit well enough and it helps us, audience and actors, to engage as fully-fledged participants in this spirited sport. We are managed in a delightful ‘take it or leave it’ perfunctory manner by the actors and a couple of rather gorgeous stage managers. Don’t be daunted by the shifting about, it’s actually fun and appealing.
We arrive early to a set of awkward love songs sung rather well by James Crompton whose guitar accompaniment receives well-earned applause from enough people to encourage a sincere belief that not all those applauding are intimately related to the singer himself. The songs have a hint of lost, unreciprocated and unrequited love and could almost be lost tunes from Wim Wenders Paris Texas or the Woody Harrelson/ Matthew McConaughey hit True Detective, such is their level of despair and loss.
From there we shift to the small room for a burst of Chekhov’s The Bear, described by the playwright himself as “a trivial little farce-vaudeville in the French manner.” The notable Chekhov scholar Elisavita Fen tells us that Chekhov wrote of The Bear, “I’ve managed to write a stupid vaudeville which, owing to the fact that it is stupid, is enjoying surprising success.” She adds that, despite this, it brought him a good income for the remainder of his life.
Usually paired with The Proposal, another vaudeville, The Bear tells the story of a widowed woman, Elena Ivanovna Popova and a visit she receives from her overbearing neighbour Grigory Stepanovitch Smirnov. He demands that she pay a debt owed for months by her late husband and they quarrel. Smirnov demands satisfaction and, despite being a woman, Popova agrees and leaves to get her husband’s pistols. When she returns Smirnov confesses that he has fallen in love with her and, after some verbal jiggery-pokery the playlette ends with a passionate kiss.
Graham has chosen to begin his pastiche with the end of The Bear and it works very well. Jacqui Whall, suitably equipped with Chekhov’s mandatory dimpled cheeks, plays Popova with a fuse only millimetres long. The only temper shorter than hers belongs to the splendid Mustaq Missouri as the impassioned neighbour cum erstwhile lover Grigory Smirnov. The pair match splendidly and their passion, combined with the small room it which it plays, is something rather special to behold.
Chekhov is explored again, twice, in Part One of the evening. Two scenes from the great Russian classic The Cherry Orchard follow, with a burst of An Ideal Husband in between.
First we meet Peter Sergeyevitch Trofimov, the eternal student and passionate socialist, and Varya, adopted daughter of Madame Ranevskaya, the owner of the orchard and the person who, in reality, runs the estate. Mark Oughton plays Trofimov with all the passion that might be expected of an early adopter of Bolshevism and it’s immensely attractive. Kirsty Hamilton provides Varya with an unanticipated degree of glamour and it sits very well on her.
It’s been some time since I had the pleasure of watching Hamilton and she’s lost none of her class during that time. The voice is in great nick and she understands perfectly what is necessary to realise Chekhov’s insistence that his plays are comedies that border on farce. These two actors work extremely well together and the scene feeds into the rest of the work perfectly.
We add Jacqui Whall as Anya to the mix after a slice of Wilde and again we hear the early echoes of the revolution as Oughton (Trofimov) sings snatches of the ‘L’Internationale’, the best known of all Socialist anthems, and we end the scene with that most classic of all revolutionary images, the rising of the moon.
On either side of The Cherry Orchard sit scenes from Wilde’s An Ideal Husband. First we meet Lord Goring (a quite different Mustaq Missouri) and a bevy of beauties – Lady Basildon (Courtney Eggleton), Mrs Marchmont (Kelly Gillbride) and Mabel Chilton (a periwig-pated Mark Oughton – Episcopal, of course) who discuss marriage and relationships seemingly endlessly. It’s mostly light, rich in wit, and goes off like a wee firecracker but, as always with Wilde, we suspect we’re being set up and so it proves.
We zip effortlessly into a later scene with Mrs Cheevely (a rather wonderful Kirsty Hamilton), Lady Markby (a convincing James Crompton) and Lady Chiltern (Courtney Eggleton). It’s a Wildean delight to see performers playing the script and the comedy and letting the style look after itself. Kiwi actors so often mistake Wilde for Coward and play it accordingly so it’s deeply pleasing to see actors whose performances of these, and other, Wilde roles in ways that would not be out of place on the main stage of The Abbey Theatre in Dublin.
We get to hear the funniest of lines performed in ways that are truly funny: “I can’t understand this modern mania for curates. In my time we girls saw them, of course, running about the place like rabbits. But we never took any notice of them, I need hardly say. But I am told that nowadays country society is quite honeycombed with them. I think it most irreligious.” And perhaps my favourite: “a typical Englishman, always dull and usually violent.” Starting at a tripping pace, the scene gets super nasty by the end as the language – and the performances – get edgier and edgier.
Concluding the scenes from An Ideal Husband we move back to the claustrophobic climes of the tiniest space in the Tiny Theatre which, though we don’t go there, leads to a rather lovely outdoor courtyard and here we’re treated to Hamilton (Mrs Cheveley), Missouri (Lord Goring) and the resolution of the theme relating to Sir Robert Chilton’s letter and what should be done with it. Both actors are simply superb – as is the direction – and the power shifts in the scene are profoundly satisfying.
It’s all performed with the actors in such close proximity that, at any one moment, I could bite Mrs Cheveley on her elegant neck or stroke Lord Goring’s tousled locks without moving an inch. I resist the temptation however, not for decorum’s sake, but simply because the characters created are so terrifying in their hatred of each other that I fear they might turn it on me, a poor, humble critic, and that I might simply not survive.
Part One of the evening ends with a treacherous scene from Chekhov’s The Seagull, quite simply my favourite play of all time. Kelly Gillbride plays Nina Mikhailovna Zarechnaya (the seagull of the title) and James Crompton plays Konstantin Gavrilovich Treplyov, a writer and the son of theatre superstar actress Irina Nikolayevna Arkadina and each does so with great clarity.
Gillbride is brittle, fragile, and seems translucent. Crompton is raw, damaged and broken. Gillbride lives the story of the killing of the seagull and each actor embodies, with seemingly little effort, the pressures building from outside their stultifying world. Unwittingly, Trigorin, the already famous writer, and Arkadina, the celebrated actress, mirror the youngsters so it comes as little surprise when Konstantin exits and shoots himself. It’s Chekhov after all, not Ibsen, and in this world, as indeed in Hedda Gabler’s, people really do ‘do these things’.
Part Two is shorter, taut and clearly focussed on the show’s endgame. We start as we mean to go on, with Chekhov, and this time it’s The Three Sisters and a sweet scene of hope between Irina Sergeyevna Prozorova, the youngest of the sisters played with great joy by Kelly Gillbride, and Baron Nikolaj Lvovich Tuzenbach, a physically unimposing junior officer empathically realised by Mark Oughton.
By now we’ve established the style of the production, recognised that these are first-rate actors, that the concept and the direction works well and that there’s a rich, deep, humanist vein of comedy to be mined. Baron Tuzenbach declares his love for the lovely Irina whose shocking response is to declare, “I can’t love you but I can marry you.” She goes on to speak of herself as a locked piano which leads to a chunk of classic Chekhov with Baron Nikolai speaking at length about the beautiful trees while dealing inwardly with his confusion and loss.
We then slip seamlessly into a later scene between middle sister Masha (Jacqui Whall) and her illicit paramour, the ‘lovesick major’ AleksandrVershinin (Kirsty Hamilton). Both characters are partially hidden in a homemade child’s tent made from a bed sheet and, while we can hear them, all we can see is the torch one of them is holding as seen through the fabric. The cross gendering in this scene really works and there is a costume expose that it would be criminal to reveal, so, sadly, no spoilers here.
The dovetailing of scenes is at its best in Part Two and, almost without interruption, we find ourselves in The Importance of Being Earnest and in Algernon Moncrieff’s city pad in Half Moon Street. An exotic Algy (Mark Oughton) is visited by his chum Jack Worthing (James Crompton) and the discourse between the two is stylish and enchanting. Crompton is the epitome of duplicity as he explains how he is “Jack in the country and Earnest in the town”. Oughton takes more delight than is reasonable in his counter explanation of Bunburying and the riotous episode is only brought to a halt by the arrival, unseen, of the feared Aunt Augusta.
What follows is a further scene from The Three Sisters, one that works least well in this extraordinary evening of celebration and intelligence. The old servant Anfisa (Courtney Eggleton) is sent from the room by Natasha (Kelly Gillbride) and what follows – a fierce debate on the usefulness of an old person who cannot work – could have been heart-breaking but doesn’t quite get there. This is the only example of cross-gendering that struggles to work.
Even the best of shows still have moments of sheer brilliance that top them all and we are asked to wait until the final scene to experience it in Chekhov Gone Wilde. Jack Worthing (James Crompton), in love with Gwendolyn Faifax, has to face the imposing figure of Gwendolyn’s aunt, Lady Bracknell, to gain permission for the marriage to proceed.
As Worthing, James Crompton is perfectly cast. He finds an honesty and a truthfulness within Wilde’s sublime text that gains our sympathy from his first syllable. Conversely, Patrick Graham as a pink-coiffed, bearded, Latifah-like revelation is as real as any Lady Bracknell I have ever seen. There is tension in the audience as the scene unfolds and we await, with bated breath, the account of Jack’s birth and Bracknell’s celebrated response. It comes, and Graham’s choices are as good as it gets.
The scene is scrumptiously under-played with an extraordinary intensity that adds to the hilarity of the situation. Bracknell and Worthing play the scene seated and at either end of the room which gives the confrontational nature of the dialogue a long-distance, ritualistic tone. It’s supremely funny, brilliant in its simplicity and both actors are fantastic.
Suddenly it’s over. There is a moment of song and dance somewhat reminiscent of the final scene of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and we are left, silently, to totter out into a wet, cold Auckland night and drive off home. Nothing can dampen the memories, however, of an extraordinary evening in the theatre and performances that will linger around in the psyche for more than just a moment.
Each actor has flashes of glory, sadness, silliness and great humanity but towering about it all is Patrick Graham, whose intellect and faith in what he does is quite simply exceptional.
Highlights for me are Kirsty Hamilton’s Mrs Cheveley, Mustaq Missouri as Smirnov and Lord Goring, Mark Oughton’s Trofimov, James Crompton’s tragic Konstantin and a wonderful Jack Worthing set him apart but, quite literally, the icing on the cake is Patrick Graham’s masterful Lady Bracknell.
This is not your everyday, common or garden, night at the theatre but it is astonishing and I think you’ll love it. It’s great fun, at times profound, and well worth venturing out for on a chill Auckland evening. It’s not often we get the opportunity to compare and evaluate works in this way and this intelligent production is certainly an excellent place to start.
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*The venue for Chekhov Gone Wilde is the Tiny Theatre – yes, that’s what it’s called – at Garnet Station, a cosy licenced cafe and restaurant in Westmere. It’s a great business choice for both parties and the place is fairly buzzing when we depart at 9.30pm. The performance space seats about 40, is long and shallow with a second, even tinier space, at one end where smaller scenes are played. It’s all very intimate and the smaller space injects an even greater immediacy to the audience experience. Not everyone will feel comfortable with this proximity but I love it. One small improvement that might easily be added to this evolving venue is a ramp for wheelchairs, a shortcoming that could easily be overcome.
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