“The play had to move forward not by following a narrow, discrete line, but as a phalanx, all of its elements moving together simultaneously. There was no model I could adapt for this play, no past history for the kind of work I felt it could become. What I had before me was the way the mind – at least my mind – actually worked.”
~ Arthur Miller, Timebends
Chekhov’s first play is widely regarded as too cumbersome to stage. At eighteen he started it and three years later he abandoned it – unfinished and chaotic, it was never put on during his lifetime.
In typical fashion, Dead Centre theatre makers have attempted something much more ambitious than merely staging this unstageable play as they set out to capture the whole experience of a night at the theatre. Bush Moukarzel and Ben Kidd, the artistic directors of the company, and co-directors of this play, are neither shy in their ambition nor subtle in their execution as they totally destroy the stage along with our preconceptions of theatre in a little over an hour.
A few months ago I was fortunate to be sitting beside Bush in The Project Arts Centre for the first half of a show. At the interval Bush curiously scanned the upstairs auditorium in The Project. He was looking at the suitability of the space for a new play for the upcoming theatre festival. He needed to be able swing things from the rafters, he said. He then looked at the audience, which was on three sides of the stage, and with genuine incredulity commented, “I’d love to know why they’re all here. That fascinates me.”
Bush was not interested in what was on stage that night, and I only realised the rationale for his reconnaissance mission when a giant wrecking ball swung down and crashed into the wall of the aristocratic Russian house on stage during Chekhov’s First Play in the Samuel Beckett theatre.
With this Dublin Theatre Festival production, Dead Centre are looking to smash open the fourth wall erected between plays and their audiences. Traditional methods of presenting “the classics” are under sustained assault in this 75 minute Chekhovian homage which sets off as a standard Russian period drama – with a neurotic and funny director’s commentary – before careening towards the rocks of modern theatrical nihilism, which here is all advertising voiceovers and costumed ‘fury signifying nothing’.
If you’ve followed Dead Centre’s development to date the sheer ambition of this work will come as no surprise, but if you’ve just stumbled on the play, as a casual festival goer, it will strike you as unlike anything you’ve seen before. This is meta-immersive theatre at its most enjoyable as we’re guided through the minds of theatre makers past and present.
On each of our seats before the show is a set of headphones. Out comes Bush to welcome us and perhaps tell us where the fire exits are. But no, we’re already in – people familiar with previous Dead Centre productions, such as Lippy, will recognise this playful start. The curtain is still down but the theatrics have begun as the audience notices a gun in his right hand and we immediately know that later on it has to be discharged, or else it wouldn’t be there.
Then the curtain comes up revealing an aristocratic Russian façade of a big house, so far so Chekhovian.
Through the headphones comes Bush’s voice. In all our heads, he’s an omniscient director here to critique everything from the performance of the cast to the significance of where the actors are positioned on the stage. If he thinks a line the actors are saying is insignificant he’ll talk over it, “Oh this is just a bit on wealthy people moaning about their mansions”. His asides let us know what is important dialogue, fluffed lines or when to zone out from an irrelevant speech.
The headphones create a sense that we’re being spoken to directly: it feels intimate, as if the performance is just for us or that we’re privy to some backstage gossip, which we get loads of. This trick of the headphones is clever. It allows for humour while aping how we experience theatre ourselves: our inner monologues constantly coaxing conclusions from the action.
Hilarious and novel, he documents the flaws of the play while explaining to us how the great themes of Chekhov’s later plays – property and the aristocracy – can already be seen here in his first work, but we’re probably missing them because he tells us it isn’t very good.
Like Chekhov, Dead Centre are interested in property. But the property they are interested in is the stake an audience has in a play once you buy your ticket. We’re told your seat is yours for the night. Even if you didn’t turn up it’s actually illegal to sell your seat on to another person, did you know that?
For theatre goers who came to see straight Chekhov this will be a disappointment, they’ll perhaps want to make amends with a trip to The Cherry Orchard, which is on later in the festival. The drama does not depict Chekhov’s first play but instead holds a mirror up to theatre in the 21st century and gets us to have a good look at the mechanics of how we experience shows as an audience.
While the play is steeped in Chekhovian allusions, Dead Centre are really just using his work as a vehicle for experimenting with the form. Once you accept this premise things become very enjoyable.
All the players are acutely aware that they’re actors playing a part. Mic’d up, they go through a couple of standard scenes before things disintegrate. The long banquet table becomes one big party as we drift in and out of scenes between the characters: unrequited love, broken marriages, failed doctors, pregnancy, ennui – it’s all there.
But everyone is distracted, they’re waiting for the arrival of the enigmatic Platonov (the play is often titled this when staged), the lead character. He’s everyone’s salvation it seems, but by the time he arrives things have already turned to chaos.
The actors have discarded their roles: Rory Nolan has stepped out of the past and is ordering a Chinese from the present. They’re all blubbering around, self absorbed, waiting for the main character to arrive. The actors get drunker, dance around and destroy the stage with drills and sledge hammers; Celtic Tiger references of excess and Viagra, mortgages and emptiness blur with Chekhov’s themes.
The Director: Did you know that in the nineties, the whole world’s supply of Viagra was made in Ireland, in a factory in county Cork? It’s like the whole economy had a massive hard on that went floppy in 2008. So again, this really is a play for our times, the resonances, the parallels…property…Viagra.
Bush’s commentary maintains the humour while getting darker and more desperate. He has arrived at the conclusion that “the play is actual just getting in the way of his explaining it to us.” We are aware of the dramatic decisions he’s made in the theatre making process and start seeing how tenuous the façade is. Each of these allusions move us closer to his conclusion, “that life gets in the way of plays” as the modern world starts to infect the characters and the line between their parts and themselves as actors disappears.
The layers erected in order to put on a show are eviscerated at this point. And of course there’s that subtle wrecking ball which swings down from above and bashes into the wall of the house. It’s then set on fire, while the cast choreograph a dance tune for the arrival of Platanov from the audience. One of the cast sings Nick Cave’s “People Ain’t No Good” as they pass around a revolver in a game of Russian roulette. All that’s left is controlled Dead Centre chaos.
Then from the audience comes Platonov, he is any of us, and we’re complicit as he joins in the mess, the fourth wall in ruin. As an audience we come to the realisation that we have a part to play in live theatre and the extent to which we engage is up to ourselves.