16 Possible Glimpses
Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival
Abbey Theatre, Dublin, Peacock Stage
Idolize and cannibalize, the ceaseless Anton Pavlovich Chekhov industry is a complex creature, not unlike the man himself. The Master has admirers of every hue. Company Finzi Pasca celebrate him in childish pranks with Donka; a major influence on Marina Carr, she writes him warts and all in her 16 Possible Glimpses, 'a poetic imagining' of a real man. Notice the 'possible'.
Chekhov the flirt, the tease, the lover who likes doing it outdoors. The randy male, the opinionated solitary traveller, who looks life straight in the face, who cares for his fellow man yet despairs of him. Carr examines the contradictions, the public and private faces, the well-known facts, and under- and over-exposes them. Blows them up on the screen.
The dramatist dramatized: his biography fantasized, his domestic and internal dramas vitalized. Chekhov friends' and family's escapades were grist to his mill. What do we know of his life really, the day-to day-squabbles, the rivalry between his devoted sister Masha and his egotistical wife Olga? Of Olga's ectopic pregnancy? Gossip had it as Nemirovich-Danchenko's. So Chekhov must have known. Right?
His arguments with Suvorin, his unconcealed contempt for his father, his admiration for Tolstoy, his disdain towards Ibsen's writing? The pressures of being the sole provider for a large family - alcohol dependant brothers, father a bankrupt, born a serf? Did his sister and mother drink too? Olga in her 'dissolute' bohemian theatrical circle maybe, but his gentle mother alone with a bottle of wine
We know of his inability to commit to relationships with women, his whoring with Oriental girls, a consumptive with a high sex drive ('comes with the territory'), but did we know he had fallen out of love with his 'part-time wife'? Or is this a tactic to sweet-talk his former lover Lika, whose story he used for Nina in The Seagull, into bed again?
Intense life in the shadow of death. Does he never give up on the life force? He asks the Black Monk, who haunts his thoughts, whose story he writes, for five more years. Dying isn't easy. 'When I was a boy all I ever wanted was to fight a duel like Pushkin. And then to lie on a couch with my fatal wound eating cloudberries.'
What is the truth? It is whatever we want it to be. Olga's report of his death - a cork flying out of the champagne bottle and the big black moth. Her journey home with his coffin in a wagon of oysters. This is how the play opens - in 1904 - with his return home from Badenweiler - mythologized before he is buried. I'll be home in a few days, he wrote to his sister Masha.
Russian train stations, country lanes, petals and snow gently falling, period stills of Chekhov's and Tolstoy's house interiors, juxtaposed with Masha, Olga, and Lika in fifties dresses. Incongruous? The new world breaking in with new ways and new technology? We must have new forms
Hand held cameras and boom microphones film, amplify, and project slightly out of synch film. Everyone a spy, a voyeur, Katie Mitchell's deconstructing influence visible in Wayne Jordan's strong production.
In the 132-seater Peacock Theatre a deep focus camera set stage is framed in red brocade - a wide screen magic lantern show. Film projection on to back screen and front gauze, layers of time and space, intimate close-ups of confidential dialogues, cinema skills at the service of live theatre? Tautology or distraction? Depends.
Sam Jackson's music and soundscape provide a romantic Russian period feel. Naomi Wilkinson's set is beautiful in its simplicity, a table, a tree, a bustling restaurant, an empty space. Sinéad McKenna's lighting casts long shadows. But exchanges in poorly coached Russian do not confer authenticity.
The ensemble acting is excellent throughout, if not always audible - the camera shots draw the eye away from the face on the stage. Deirdre Mullins convinces us that Chekhov chose the wrong girl, and Cathy Belton is an unsympathetic Olga. As younger brother Kolya, the talented one, Aaron Monaghan haemorrhages alarmingly - for the front row.
But Patrick O'Kane, an actor of some intensity, looks more like Lenin than Chekhov. With his shaved head, high cheekbones, he is more inscrutable Asiatic Siberian than 'lazy southerner', the once-upon-a-time little barefoot boy who always chewed sunflower seeds in his mother's fond memory.
Memory and myth. Marina Carr is good at myth. 16 Possible Glimpses, billed as an hour and a half with no interval, turned out to be two and a half hours with interval. Where to stop in recreating a life culled from archives? If only we knew. If only we knew
"16 Possible Glimpses" runs till 15th October 2011
The Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival runs till 16th October
Reviewer: Vera Liber