Ward No. 6

Adapted by Matthew Parker from the short story by Anton Chekhov
DogOrange
Camden People's Theatre
(2011)

Ward No. 6 production photo

Plays about madness should contain at least a hint of, well, madness. But sometimes madness is incomprehensible, which is something that a play shouldn't be. DogOrange's Ward No.6, based on the Chekhov short story, walks the line between the mad and the incomprehensible; sometimes it teeters and falls, but invariably it picks itself up again.

In late 19th Century Russia, Dr Ragin is fed up with ineffectual medicine and the corruption around him. A thinking man, he's also fed up with boring people - until he visits Ward 6. Patient Gromov may be mad, but he's also the only one able to challenge Ragin and provide him with intelligent conversation. Unable to understand his fascination with Gromov, the authorities around Ragin become convinced that he too is mad.

Harry Lobek is quietly passionate and subtle as Ragin. His descent into 'madness' is smoothly done, begging the question of whether or not he is mad or just a man pushed too far. He's well contrasted by the boorish Averyanitch played by Michael Linsey. Oliver Lavery is superb as the mad but brilliant Gromov and the odious Hobotov, the doctor who goads Ragin and decides that he is mad. His expressive face switches effortless from the frustrated and frantic intelligence of Gromov to the smug one of Hobotov.

In the black box theatre, the actors set up the scenes with just a few chairs, tables and props. With chalk, the inmates scribble on the walls and floor. It's both simple and chaotic as the inmates rush frantically around to move the furniture. This is sometimes done to music and with dance, which grates and seems out of place at first, but becomes a natural extension of the narrative as Ragin becomes more unstable.

The narrative - told in flashbacks - is generally clear and easy to follow. However, the present day, in which Ragin is an inmate, is sometimes a bit vague and this vagueness sometimes carries through into the flashbacks. The play starts with the four inmates performing some sort of ritual before starting the flashback into Ragin's story, but it is never quite clear what the ritual is. Is the storytelling part of the ritual? Or is the story to explain the ritual? It is in these moments when the play becomes a bit too mad; the inmates minds are shut to us and we are left to make our own assumptions about their frenzied movements.

Though Ward No.6 is a bit too wordy at the beginning, throwing the audience into the deep end with Ragin's rationalisations and philosophies, it soon eases up and the humour makes it more palatable. However, the impact of the piece is softened somewhat by the vagueness of some parts of the drama. It is a play to think about afterwards, but somehow isn't quite thought provoking enough to make you muse on it afterwards.

Reviewer: Emma Berge