The Proposal and The Bear

Anton Chekhov
Butterfly Theatre Company
St James Theatre Studio

The Proposal and The Bear from Butterfly Theatre Company

St James Studio offers cabaret, comedy, music and theatre. Butterfly Theatre Company, which has already presented cut versions of The Importance of Being Earnest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream at lunchtime in the Studio, returns now with a much better idea, a 45-minute double bill of Chekhov comedies. The audience sits at tables. Drinks and lunch bags can be purchased.

Anton Chekhov, when he was a young man, used to say that theatre quickly bored him; but that he enjoyed watching vaudeville sketches. He, in fact, began his theatrical career, in his late twenties, writing vaudeville sketches from 1885 to 1891.

These two so-called “jokes in one-act” were hugely popular with professionals and amateurs in Moscow, St Petersburg and the provinces, establishing Chekhov as one of the leading boulevard playwrights, though he constantly disparaged them, saying they were piffling, mangy, wretched, boring and vulgar.

The Proposal, which premièred in 1890, is a satire on the courting habits of the bourgeoisie who are more interested in marriages of convenience than in love-matches. A young hypochondriac (Matthew McPherson) arrives to propose to a landowner’s snobbish daughter (Nadia Hynes). They immediately start quarrelling about whether his family or her family owns a meadow and then they quarrel about who has the best hunting dog. They scream and shout at each other. “I have palpitations!” he cries. “My heart is burning. I do believe I’m dying!” McPherson is very funny.

The Bear, which premièred in 1888, was Chekhov’s most successful play in his lifetime and made him a lot of money. A middle-aged landowner (Gary Sefton) calls on a young widow (Caroline Colomei) to collect the debt her late husband should have paid before he died seven months previously. She says she can pay him on the following day. He insists she pays him immediately.

He has a poor opinion of women, having jilted and been jilted many times. She has an equally poor opinion of men, having had a husband who cheated on her. Their quarrelling leads to a hysterical duel with pistols. “I will shoot her like a chicken!” he declares. Edward Hulme, the director, takes the farce to an even more blatant erotic level by having the boorish landowner getting so excited that he strips to his underwear and wipes the sweat on his body with the widow’s mourning veil.

Butterfly Theatre Company may well be on to a good thing with lunchtime theatre. There are so many classic one-act comedies just waiting to be revived, that they will be spoiled for choice.

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch

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