Anton Chekhov in a new version by David Hare
Almeida King's Cross
"My life is in ruins and all you can do is joke about it". This sums up the effect that Mikhail Platonov has on everybody that he encounters. There are four young women in this play and each of them falls desperately in love with the eponymous hero. After a brief spell of great happiness, suicidal disaster inevitably follows.
The set for David Hare's new version is designed by Paul Brown to fit in the larger auditorium at the Almeida King's Cross. It is one of the most impressive that can ever have been seen on a stage in England. In part, this is because the old railway sheds that make up the Almeida's temporary home are so wide. It is possible to contain within the space a field of sunflowers, a wooden bungalow that also symbolically looks like a mausoleum, a garden, a stream which suddenly yields up a railroad track and the edge of a wood.
Into this setting strolls a man who looks uncannily like Shane MacGowan, the notorious lead singer of the Pogues, after another rough night. This rake is variously described as "a wastrel who squandered his inheritance" and "a man whose mission in life is to tell women they're stupid". This nearly catches him but his intelligence must also be taken into account to get a rounded picture.
Aidan Gillen in the title role plays Platonov as a very modern jester. In this way, he sometimes seems a little out of time but it is worth putting up with this for the humour that he injects into the part of a man who might otherwise seem nothing more than rude and mentally cruel. By the end of the play, our pop star has taken on an entirely new character, somewhere between Hamlet and Jesus.
The owner of the estate is a "luscious Amazon", Anna Petrovna, strongly but sensitively played by Helen McCrory. She is a woman of a certain age who has been left widowed in charge of a run-down estate. As a result, she is forced to entertain some fairly unpleasant people, nearly all of whom are her creditors. As the play commences, Porfiri, a particularly unpleasant businessman, is wooing her. Even this not very true love cannot run smoothly as his son, Kiril is committed to protecting his own inheritance from an anyway unwilling Anna, at any cost.
At the same time, Anna has inevitably fallen in love with Platonov. Life becomes particularly difficult as it is apparent that the only way that the estate can be saved is for a kind of sale and leaseback arrangement. It is not difficult in a Chekhov play to know that this is a first step on the road to ruin.
The themes of this play are old Chekhov standards. Love, money and the oncoming emancipation of the serfs. The latter presents a consequent grim message for the bourgeois but impecunious landowners and should sound familiar. The monetary problems such as those of the local doctor, vainly played by a very convincing Adrian Scarborough are historical. The romantic ones all stem from a single source. Without exception, they are caused by our hero's effortless charm and his dissolution.
Through this excessive charm, he comes close to breaking up three different marriages, one of them his own and in so doing, drives almost every member of the twenty strong cast to despair. In particular, Jodhi May as Sofya, the sweetly innocent wife of Anna Petrovna 's son falls head over heels for Platonov and is completely unable to take in his subsequent betrayal.
As well as the fine performances from Aidan Gillen and Helen McCrory, Jodhi May as a bemused Sofya, Bernard Kay as a wicked Jewish financier who gets to deliver a dignified speech almost worthy of Shylock and Jeffry Wickham as a slightly mad colonel all give of their best.
The lighting designed by Mark Henderson creates exactly the right atmosphere whether a bright summer's afternoon or a beautiful twilight. He comes into his own with one of the most exciting stage scenes for a long time involving an express train that seems destined to wipe out a large proportion of the audience as the interval curtain falls.
The overall impression that one is left with after this sparkling production is that both Chekhov and his adaptor, David Hare are supremely good playwrights. They are also exceptionally well supported by director, Jonathan Kent and his team.
If the notion of a play by Chekhov conjures up three-and-a-half hours of slightly tedious social intercourse, don't believe it! This production is truly theatre at its very best with much humour, good ensemble acting, a spectacular set and a really special "special effect".