Platonov @ Barbican Theatre, London

directed by
Lev Dodin
The acclaimed Maly Drama Theatre of St Petersburg returns to the Barbican with its astonishing production of Chekhov’s Platonov. The play one of Chekhov’s earliest works was discovered among his papers after his death, and for years was known as the play with no name.’

Mikhail Platonov is an impoverished schoolmaster who draws women to him apparently without thought or intent. Tormented by the gulf between the idealism of his youth and the narrow, self-seeking world he now inhabits, his arrival at his lover’s summer-house sets off a kind of vortex of frustrated ambition and desire. His placid wife Sasha is apparently oblivious to his lover Anna, a witty, plump little thing perpetually trying to needle Platonov into desire. She’s oblivious, too, to the arrival of a former lover, Sofya, and to the sudden and frantic obsession of the young Maria. Platonov, played with electrifying charisma by Sergei Kuryshev, embodies a certain kind of tragic Russian spirit: passionately but uncertainly idealistic, and painfully aware of the frailties of humanity.

There’s a supremely Chekhovian sub-plot to do with the need to sell Anna’s estate. I was much too transfixed by Platonov himself to care one way or the other about the fate of the property, but the continued anxious reference to it gives the play an uneasy air, as if all the characters however sumptuously clothed are a month or two away from destitution.

The play – which was rehearsed for seven years by director Lev Dodin and the Maly cast runs almost to four hours. It has inevitable longeurs, and no doubt an older Chekhov would have exercised a little restraint, but there’s a certain pleasure in watching a production that positively revels in dramatic excess. No corner of human behaviour goes unexamined: violence, madness, betrayal, vengeance, suicide all these are thrown in. The cast rise to the challenge with an energy almost exhausting to watch.

The staging for this production is nothing short of miraculous. Beneath a wooden gallery, and flanked by steps leading up to decking on either side, is a long pool receding back the whole depth of the stage. That the actors would move in and out of the water wasn’t surprising, but when Platonov dived in full-length there was a collective gasp. The play’s first half consists almost entirely of a party at Anna’s house, with the cast moving constantly through the set, playing instruments on the gallery, lighting candles, swimming from side to side.

That the performance was entirely in Russian, with surtitles for we poor monoglot English, seemed hardly to matter. The actors perform far beyond their lines: Platonov’s face is so expressive it sometimes resembles a Japanese Noh mask, all tragic downturned eyes and mouth. His old lover Sofya is pale as milk with a tumble of pre-Raphaelite hair, and inhabits a sort of miserable stillness in the centre of the storm, while Anna bobs about the stage like a glossy little blackbird. One of the most wordless scenes comes when Platonov and Sofya fall into the pool together, and what follows is so breathtakingly erotic the theatre went silent as a cathedral, with the exception a gentleman three rows back who murmured “oh my.”

Perhaps what’s most notable about the play is that despite the sombreness of the story, and the awful inevitability of its conclusion, it manages somehow to be a perversely uplifting experience. It suggests that tragedy oughtn’t to be despised, if it’s just another thread in the messy, wonderful tapestry of living. These men and women dance, fight, get drunk, kiss and are kissed, play jazz and set off fireworks. If this is how they party, I thought to myself, I’m going to get me some Russian friends.

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