William St. Clair
Once again, science and art battle it out for audience gratification. Someones bound to get hurt in Linnie Reedmans Poprygunya, now playing at the Greenwich Playhouse.
Inspired by the life and works of Anton Chekhov, Reedmans play is ostensibly concerned with the formulation of his most famous work. There are overt references to The Seagull throughout, and in addition more oblique, thematic allusions; a prior interest in Russian literature is not prerequisite here, but it certainly helps.
Chekhov, played here by Henry Maynard, is a somewhat diminutive character, lacking the pretension and delusional grandeur of his peers. A medical student protg and friend of Osip Dymov he writes stories to earn pocket-money. He is thus caught between two warring factions art and science, and their personification in his circle of friends. He offers the audience seemingly impartial reflections on their competing imperatives to describe the world.
Olga, Dymovs wife, is a desultory painter and aesthete. She loves her husband, but is increasingly drawn away from his clinical, repetitive quietude and towards the leading lights of bohemia loud, flamboyant and original.
Physically, this is embodied in a move from urban to rural environments, and in Olgas decadent affair with artist Ryabovsky. When things turn nasty, Olga returns home to discover that loyal Dymov who had shown such great academic promise has committed a gruesome form of suicide. Her folly is rendered clear: she was chasing mere apparitions of greatness, whilst offering its material presence no support, no love.
Poprygunya is richly composed. There is a good deal of satisfaction to be derived from Reedmans interplay and development, which remains delightfully ambivalent to these clashes of sense and sensibility. The image of the crows symbolising the freedom of nature and the fear of that freedom is high Romantic irony, as is Olgas description of Dymovs hands as honest when the play aligns nature and art with truth.
Interesting, too, is the plays ostensible motif clothing and masquerade. There is a sense of disingenuity in dress of art and dreams being powerful, ideological forces in the world despite their status as decoration. Fittingly, the costumes are well chosen, though the stage design less so and Greens lighting was at times a little blanching.
In addition, for a new play Poprygunya is a touch formulaic. The downwards spiral is typical of Chekhovs writing, as one would expect; there are overtures, too, of Zola and Dostoyevsky. But a tribute neednt risk predictability and rupture by being so formally faithful.
But these are minor problems. The play is otherwise well directed, with compelling performances and wonderfully evocative music. A rewarding experience indeed.