Bitesize Chekhov

d’Animate

Zoo Southside

From 01 August 2014 to 25 August 2014

Rating: **

Review by Vera Liber

How wonderful to see young actors tackling a young Chekhov. A perfect fit? Alas no. I itched to point out the subtleties, the play of tone and nuance eluding them.

Chekhov’s early vaudevilles hold the germs of his later works. His observations of human nature are both amusing and perceptive. They need skill, experience and a good director to unpick every line, not go hell for leather as d’Animate seem to think is appropriate. 

Chekhov’s short early plays are perfect for short attention span Edinburgh Fringe shows, and are often a temptation for stand-up comedians. Indeed, Steve Coogan has the hen-pecked Ivan Ivanovich Nyukhin of On The Harmful Effects of Tobacco under his belt.

Tobacco, The Proposal and Swan Song (all late 1880s) are performed by Michael Rivers, co-director and founder of d’Animate, Will Mytum and Helen Keech, who have promise but need to fine tune.

Tobacco’s monologue is divided between the three in supportive mime and dialogue, Rivers overdoing the fusty digressive old man, whose name by the way means to sniff.

The Proposal conveniently has three roles, which they all attack with too much gusto. A timid marriage proposal disintegrates into a slanging match over the ownership of land. But after a bit of slapstick dying, an incompatible match is made.

Such is the way of the world. No wonder Chekhov resisted marriage till late in his short life, when he saw how his friends conducted their love lives.

Proposal requires a subtler playing than the three can manage. Keech almost understands that, shrill though she is, trading insults with Rivers as suitor Lomov. Chekhov is like music, he needs to be approached with a delicate touch.

The most successful and touching of the three plays is Swan Song, set as it is in a provincial theatre, where a blind-drunk morbid 68-year-old actor Svetlovidov (‘clear-sighted’ or ‘seeing the light’) is left alone in the theatre in the middle of the night after a binge celebrating his benefit performance. Who does that remind you of?

Bittersweet, reflective, looking back over missed opportunities in love, quoting Shakespeare, Svetlovidov is a poignant role that calls for shifts of tenor and pace, but Mytum seems more comfortable quoting the bard than Chekhov.

Clear-sighted Bitesize Chekhov is not. D’Animate are playing the surface. And if this is physical theatre, then they need more coaching. Running on the spot is not enough.

Bitesize Chekhov is in its third consecutive year at the Fringe, and I read it was voted Top Five Fringe Debuts 2012. d’Animate claim ‘this is Chekhov as you have never seen before’, and they are right. With the best will in the world I found no ‘fresh life’ in it.

Perhaps, Bitesize Chekhov needs a young reviewer, one new to Chekhov—imagine that—not one who has seen more Chekhov productions both English and Russian (and translated a few) than this enterprising young trio of actors has had hot dinners…

At eighteen I did not ‘get’ Chekhov. In my twenties I preferred his short stories. At forty I finally ‘got’ his plays, and ever since it has been a love affair. Chekhov is like a good wine, he gets better the older we get…

"All I wanted was to say honestly to people: have a look at yourselves and see how bad and dreary your lives are!" Chekhov spun gold from his observations of human foibles.

Under his microscope we are all poor funny deluded specimens. Beckett’s predecessor, Chekhov saw all this too clearly. Never give up, fail again, fail better.