On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco / Can Cause Death
Anton Chekhov, translated by Carol Rocamora / Alison Carr
Forward Theatre Project and York Theatre Royal co-production
Northern Stage, Newcastle
Review by Peter Lathan
The monologue On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco is one of Chekhov's earliest works, preceded only by Platonov and first published in 1886 (revised in 1902), and in it we already see the author's characteristic blend of comedy, pathos and tragedy, as well as a characteristic protagonist. Ivan Ivanovich Nyukhin has been instructed by his wife to give - "for charitable purposes" - a lecture on the harmful effects of tobacco but he digresses continually, revealing much about his life and his relationship with his wife and seven daughters. This ineffectual little man lays bare his unhappiness and his failed dreams. And we laugh for, for Chekhov, there is nothing more tragic than the ridiculousness of life. Sounds familiar? Of course: we see echoes of him in poor Vanya, with his failed attempt at murder, and Konstantin who even fails to kill himself. And the sense of longing for an imagined something better and of loss are integral to both The Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard.
David Bradley plays Nyukhin. He totally inhabits the character, giving a performance of great subtlety in which body language, facial expression and voice combine to give us the man himself. Under Charlotte Bennett's unobstrusive direction, Bradley scarcely moves from the spot so that tiny movements - nervous glances into the wings where he wife will appear at the end of the lecture, the surreptitious pulling out of his watch to check how much time he has left to fill - assume great significance and amuse and move us simultaneously.
Can Cause Death, written by Tyneside playwright Alison Carr, takes us forward some months to Nyukhin's funeral at which his wife, Popova, gives the eulogy. Clutching a glass and bottle she gives - "as it were" - her side of the story. Using many of the phrases which occurred repeatedly in her husband's "lecture", she completes the picture. A prototype, I would suggest, of The Three Sisters' Natalia Ivanovna, we see in her the same disappointment, the same failed (or at least unfulfilled) dreams as plagued her husband.
Written in response to On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco, it has that Chekhovian "feel" but is not a pastiche, as it so easily could have been. Carr has captured the essence of the Chekhov play and created a worthy companion piece.
And Bradley plays Popova; with equal conviction and equally successfully, he avoids any temptation to slip into caricature. This is not a man in drag: this is a genuine woman. In this he is helped enormously by the director's decision not to take the obvious path and have an interval in which he changes costume but rather to let us watch the - very slow - transformation from Nyukhin to Popova, from man to woman. And he achieves this with the same subtlety that characterises his playing of the two roles. From the removal of the jacket as Nyukhin to the final application of make-up as Popova, body language and facial expression shift almost imperceptibly. And there was no rush here: the whole transformation took what must have been (I didn't count!) almost five minutes and became almost a play in itself. It certainly held the audience transfixed and, yes, amused, but not in a laugh-out-loud kind of way.
After twenty script submissions from Forward Theatre Project and Script Yorkshire, Alison Carr was chosen as the writer to be commissioned for this FTP new writers development project. It premiered as a Platform at the National Theatre's Cottesloe in November last year. It deserves a longer life, for the masterclass in acting given by David Bradley, Charlotte Bennett's clever direction, Alison Carr's sympathetic development of the original and, of course, for the joy of seeing one of Chekhov's early mini-masterpieces.