Chekhov in Hell

Circa Two, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Waterfront, Wellington

12/05/2012 - 09/06/2012

Production Details

If Chekhov were alive today … 

Anton Chekhov, playwright, author and pitiless observer of Russian society, awakes from a hundred-year coma and finds himself in twenty-first century London.  

Bewildered and fascinated he takes a whirlwind tour of Britain from reality TV, smartphones, feng shui and sex trafficking to celebrity chefs, MTV Cribs, pole dancing and Twitter. This bitterly comic new play asks where have we come from, how did we get here, and what do we do now? 

“A freewheeling yet pointed spin on the many ills, rampant absurdity and eroded values of modern life… Fast, funny, sometimes achingly hip” – The Times 

“I’ve read many new plays reflecting on the modern world, but nothing captured the humour and the tragedy like Chekhov in Hell, which seems completely appropriate since since Chekhov was the master of the tragi-comedy,” says Director Eleanor Bishop. “Chekhov in Hell is by turns hilarious, fun and moving. I was drawn to the way it weaved a historical theatrical figure and all those associations into a biting satire of our world today.”

Featuring stunning design from Alice Hill (Tinderbox), daring projection (Andrew Simpson) and a fully-fledged original dance pop soundtrack by Chapman Tripp nominee Gareth Hobbs, Chekhov in Hell is a fast paced, funny, seriously fun night out!

Come view our world through the eyes of a literary master – the good, the bad and the ugly.

CAST: Victoria Abbott, Nick Dunbar, Simon Leary, Heather O’Carroll, and Jason Whyte as Chekhov.

“A freewheeling yet pointed spin on the many ills, rampant absurdity and eroded values of modern life… Fast, funny, sometimes achingly hip” – The Times

12 May – 9 June
Tues-Sat 7.30pm, Sun 4.30pm
Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St
Bookings: 04 801 7992

Adults $46 / Student, Senior Citizen and Beneficiaries $38
Groups (6+) $39 (20+) $36 / Under 25s $25
Friends of Circa (to 24 May) $33
$25 Preview: Friday 11 May and Sunday 13 May

R16 – contains strong language. 

Chekhov adrift in the modern world

Review by Ewen Coleman [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 15th May 2012

The premise that Dan Rebellato uses for his play Chekhov in Hell, currently playing at Circa Two, is that of someone from an earlier era coming back to today and being confronted by modern society.  As the name of his play implies, the person he has chosen is Anton Chekhov, the great Russian playwright who along with Ibsen, was, over 100 years ago, one of the most astute writers to observe society and the foibles of those living around him.  So what did he find? From Rebellato’s point of view he was totally bewildered as to be expected but there was also horror and cynicism at the way we behave today.  

The play starts very dramatically with Chekhov dying.  Then somehow he awakes a 100 years later in a London Hospital.  He is given over to the care of his niece but before she can come and collect him he up and walks out into the middle of London. And here the fun starts.  He meets various modern day Londoners like the overzealous policemen, patronising counsellors, effete fashion designers, a sleazy people smuggler and TV executives in situations familiar to us using language of the modern idiom but for Chekhov, all he could do was sit and look in wonderment. 

He never says much, just sits and observes.  But through his eyes we meet individuals and get to see him in places that give a rather jaundice view of modern society.  Some of it like the fashion house are very funny while others like the girl trafficking somewhat horrific hence his feeling that he is in hell like the play’s title suggests.  How he meets these people or gets himself into these situations is never explained and the brevity of each is such that the people he meets are exaggerated caricatures rather the real characters.  And why in particular these people? He was after all a physician, as explained in the play, before becoming a playwright so why not look for what would interest him first? 

But these anomalies aside the play is very dynamic in its structure with taught punchy dialogue that director Eleanor Bishop brilliantly brings together in an expertly orchestrated production that is performed with just the right amount of heightened theatricality. 

In the title role of Chekhov Jason Whyte says little but conveys much through stooped shoulders and a forlorn hangdog look that only he can achieve.  The rest of the cast; Victoria Abbott, Nick Dunbar, Simon Leary and Heather O’Carroll play a multitude of characters with energy and great gusto, never letting the pace or momentum of the many scenes drop making this an entertaining and at times very funny show to watch. 


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Hell for him is delight for us

Review by John Smythe 13th May 2012

The role of an artist, Anton Chekhov believed, was to ask questions, not to answer them. Thus Dan Rebellato’s Chekhov in Hell ends with the man himself asking, “Shto eto znachit?” – “What does it mean?”  

His best-know plays – The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard – all use gently satirical comedy to interrogate the meaning of middle-class existence in late 19th century Russia, before the revolution (not that he knew that, although his plays suggest a status quo that could not be sustained). Anton Pavlovich Chekhov died on 15 July 1904, the year before the first stirrings of unrest that led to the 1917 Bolshevik uprising.

This NZ premiere of Chekhov in Hell is directed by Eleanor Bishop, who was once a student of Professor Rebellato at the University of London’s Royal Holloway College.

It opens with Chekhov’s death scene, delivered impressively in Russian (cast coached by William Brandt and Elena Stejko), then leaps 100 years-or-so* to an NHS hospital in London. Chekhov is stirring from his coma and a distant niece of his – Nicola – is being prevailed upon to take him home. Somewhat bewildered by this turn of events, she nevertheless thinks he looks like a nice man: “He’s old, he’s got to know stuff; he can help me forget the noise …”

But before she can take him into her care, he wakes from his coma and disappears from the hospital. What follows, as he tries to makes sense of the English language and contemporary British culture, is a series of satirical sketches depicting life in 21st century London, mostly seen through Chekhov’s eyes. It all plays out with a pace and energy that is in total contrast to the conventional staging of a Chekhov play. And that, of course, is part of the point.  

There are a couple of through-lines. Nicola is revisited a number of times, phoned up by the caring social interface of the police force with updates about her missing uncle as she deals aggressively with her unseen child. When Chekhov chats with a boy in the playground he is questioned by suspicious police then ‘liberated’ by a Russian immigrant gangster who imports and manages prostitutes from his old country. His search for the missing Irina – a working girl he claims to love – is a recurring plotline that brings the play to its climax.  

Four actors play 42 roles – three covering 41 between them with extraordinary dexterity – each wearing just one basic costume throughout the contemporary scenes, and using accents and characterisations to distinguish each from the others. Alice Hill has also designed the impressive ‘light box’ set which likewise allows the action to move seamlessly through multiple locations, abetted by Andrew Simpson’s mind-blowing multi-screen AV design and Marcus McShane’s lighting design, expertly operated by Miriam Sobey.

Gareth Hobbs’ original music and sound design is stunning, slightly redolent of Laurie Anderson in the voice-filtered music bridges – this production’s solution to communicating the scene titles – and, where necessary, evoking the “noise” Nicola wants to escape in over-crowded London.

As Anton Chekhov, Jason Whyte is variously bewildered, shocked and observing intently. Whereas Chekhov’s characters are instrumental in bringing about their own fates, or in responding to what fate has dealt them, Chekhov in this play is largely a passive observer, at the effect of other people’s actions and – apart from escaping the hospital – given no chance to be proactive. His well-delivered big speech towards the end is a fine poetic contrast to the maelstrom he is amidst, and epitomises the ‘stream of consciousness’ Chekhov pioneered in his short stories, but it doesn’t comment, as such, on his experiences. The question, as mentioned above, is asked, and any judgement on the nature of contemporary life is left to us to make.

Victoria Abbot nails all 11 of her roles with clear distinction, including the aforementioned Nicola and Irina. In the harassed and wary Nicola she finds a tiny yet touching glow of awareness that there is a gap her life that could be filled by Chekhov. Irina starts off hard and pragmatic then softens to reveal an excellent education as she summarises – in Russian – what has happened in world history since 1904. Despite the language barrier for most of us, we know Chekhov is wrapping his head around cataclysmic events including the Russian Revolution, two World Wars and the attack on the World Trade Centre, and its aftermath.

But the show-stopper comes with Abbott’s Jessica who, with business partner Craig, makes a TV reality show called Helping Hand. Her rant about what “a fucking nightmare of a place” the world is contains some classic Chekhovian subtext that draws us into a profound understanding of where she has been in her life. It is a sequence that sustains the longest and most moving pause of the play’s 100 minutes.

Nick Dunbar plays up and down the classes (as do the others) with his eight roles. His Alexsandr – Sascha for short – is as charmingly threatening as his misogynistic fashionista style guru, Max, is frighteningly flip and hilarious.

In his 11 roles, Simon Leary crosses genders (as do the others) twice with Sarah the social worker attempting to control a superbly-written encounter-group scene, and Mimi the model. His Doctor’s readiness to accept total responsibility for Chekhov’s disappearance is a comic gem and his Internet guru, James, freaks all of us out, as well as Chekhov, with his sales pitch for ‘Web 20’.

If you thought you had seen Heather O’Carroll’s full range of characters over recent years, her 11 roles will confound your expectations.  She starts and finishes as Chekhov’s loving and grieving wife Olga (although he once said “Medicine is my lawful wife and literature is my mistress”). The treats between include a hardcore Policewoman contrasted with Claire, a wonderfully overbearing police support person; a tragically funny victim of abuse, Jemma; a stoned exotic dancer; and a hip-hop nut, Marcia, who prefers the mystery to the history.

Abbott and O’Carroll both offer spot-on fashion models and pair up formidably as Cheryl and Lynn, trying to teach Chekhov about the importance of energy-flows in the workplace.  A speed-dating scene allows playwright Rebellato to add even more to his already rich plethora of contemporary characters.

You will have to see the play to discover why Chekhov gets called out of a brothel over a megaphone by the armed offender’s squad. It makes for a dramatic ending but I personally feel disappointed that Nicola never gets to spend quality time with her distant Uncle Anton.  Perhaps it’s intended that that’s a scene we are free to play out in our imaginations – often a good thing in a play, but not a Chekhov trademark.

As director Bishop presides over this very well modulated production of a complex theatrical challenge with a team who make it flow, focusing our attention on the content while we also enjoy their performing skills for what they are.  

As a metaphor for western so-called-civilisation, contemporary London may be Hell for Chekov, but as a play and production it leaves us on a cloud of delight.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – –
*The publicity says he’s been in a coma for 100 years, which would make this 2004 but the play premiered in November 2010, transferred to London for a short season a year ago and someone does say he’s 150 – so given he was born in 1860, that would make ‘the present’ 2010. 


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A delightful satirical narrative

Review by David Farrar 13th May 2012

Chekov in Hell opens in Circa Two with Anton Chekov in a hospital bed, clearly dying in 1904. A short time later, it is 2012 and a (great) niece of Chekov is informed that her uncle has woken up from a 100 year coma.

Victoria Abbott, as the niece Nicola, gave what I thought was a stunning performance. Her ability to do different accents was phenomenal, and she got the mannerisms spot on. She also has one of the most expressive faces I’ve seen, and could have you in stitches just by the way she pinched her eyes and lips together as the politically correct police officer was reassuring her that they are here to make her feel valued, as they update on the hunt for her uncle. [more]  


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