Donka, a Letter to Chekhov

Company Finzi Pasca
Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival
Gaiety Theatre, Dublin
(2011)

Donka, a Letter to Chekhov production photo

Alerted to this highly praised international touring show by a friend in Perth, Australia, who saw it in February this year, I travelled to Dublin with high expectations and was not disappointed.

Inspired by Chekhov's works and letters, Donka is warm, inclusive, charmingly whimsical, surreal enough for Dali or Bunuel, and full of Chekhov's humanity. Created in 2009/10 by Daniele Finzi Pasca from Lugano to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Chekhov's birth, and co-produced with Moscow's Chekhov International Theatre Festival, Donka is a show of moments that add up to a surprising whole...

A deconstruction, a shuffling of the pack, of Chekhov's life and plays by 'the theatre of the caress'. Meyerhold would have jumped for joy. But would Chekhov? A man who loved vaudeville, clowns, and had a wicked sense of humour, who observed life through a wry lens? He liked fishing and duels, too, the countryside and medicine, people and mischief.

All are represented in song, acrobatics both terrestrial and aerial, illusions of perspective, infinite space in a space too small for the company's large hearts and circus arts, clowning and juggling as you've never seen before, balletic, controlled, amusing and absurd.

Chekhov juggled too, medicine and writing. Information about the man is slipped in like syrup from a spoon. The new treatment of mare's milk for pulmonary disorder, the incredible fact that his corpse was brought back in a wagon marked 'fresh oysters', are realised in images so engaging that it matters not whether one recognises references or not.

Girls in white dresses sing to a Russian melody played on an accordion Chebutykin's song from Three Sisters - sitting on a tomb-de-ay - whilst cannons roar and gunshots whistle. Three girls compete on a trapeze swing, interrupted by two comic narrators who guide us in a digressive sort of way.

We are all the same, aren't we... Maybe, but not like this superb troupe. How many of us can contort our bodies into the shapes on the doctor's trolley? Painful? A 'leetle bit'. Or balance in splits across two pairs of feet up in the air? In fairy tales, perhaps.

Fairytale imagery (a girl with a plait that drags on the floor, giants and babies), cartoon art, video back projection, magical lighting, smoke from swinging censers - for atmosphere, you understand - and lots of fishing rods in Loie Fuller display.

Romantic, mood-setting music, guitars strum, church litany is sung, and semi-literate nurses talk of a writer with a lung disorder... and do you remember the mummers in Three Sisters? Well, here they are.

Different talents, different styles, but eight people very much in tune with each other. Skating on thin ice. Aren't we all? Natasha especially. The house of Bernarda Alba somehow sneaked its way in for me. An aberration no doubt. Distracted by the background beat.

One must write about life not as it is or should be, but as it appears in dreams. We are told that twice. We get it. This is the Company Finzi Pasca's Chekhov dream. A present to him of their love in the form of their talent. But, where is the soul? For a clown it is in his shoes.

For some it is in silence, where they can catch an idea. Chekhov's famous pauses are hard to recreate in this restless ebullient show. Show it is, dazzling with infectious affection. And beautiful skills. Dissection not the least of them.

Bodies are eviscerated, guts and snot pulled from unusual orifices, water spurts from many wounds after an unfortunate duel. Chekhov is dissected, and his entrails played with, all in good faith. Pranks and laughter.

Perception is what it's about. Horizontal acrobatics when filmed vertical look like the most amazing silent movie antics. Headstand on the hand of a person doing a single handstand... A walk up his arm... Tricks of the trade revealed.

Red petals fall, a backscreen pulses with viscous red and yellow, blood and pus. A man is dying. Vitruvian man spins in his wheel, a bed mows them down one by one. Fun is made of dying. A girl plays on a miniature bed xylophone - Anya from The Cherry Orchard.

Is this a sanatorium or an asylum? Have the lunatics been let loose? The absurdity of life. But let's enjoy it while we can. And mock death, if we can't outwit it. This is what life is really like. One big circus.

Chekhov lies down, he is handed his glasses, and covered with a clown's harlequin outfit. He turns towards us, and the lights go out. The serious, the trivial, the thoughtful and the throwaway, the sad and the silly, Donka, the little bell that warns that a fish has been caught, has us on its hook.

The multi-talented cast of eight is superlative, Finzi Pasca's production unique, Maria Bonzanigo's music divine, designs, costumes, set, video, lighting outstanding - too many to name. Try to catch it wherever you can. Only five performances of Donka in Dublin. No knowing where it will turn up next.

Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival runs till 16th October 2011

Reviewer: Vera Liber