Review: Chekhov’s First Play at the Playhouse

Date: 09/05/2019

Chekhov’s unfinished play – the basis of Dead Centre’s current touring production – is like a flame to a moth for writers and directors. Tick off the names that have had a crack at it: Frayn, Hare – and plenty more besides. Perhaps something in its incompleteness appeals to the completist, the interpreter, the deconstructionist… if you can finish off an unfinished play you can make it mean whatever you want.

The action on stage centres around a group of people musing on life, manners, property – the archetypal ‘staring out of windows and whining about about the ducks going to Moscow’ that Withnail bemoans – as they await the enigmatic Platonov, the kind of character around whom classics so frequently revolve.

Ben Kidd and Bush Moukarzel, who write and direct Chekhov’s First Play appear to settle on the interesting idea of offering a director’s commentary through headphones on the play – a real-time, real-life dual screening that requires some getting used to but offers Moukarzel the opportunity to annotate, explain and expand to amusing effect. Or so he thinks. The further he gets, the longer his narration becomes a mea culpa, a confession, a plea…

The director’s commentary creates room for a lot of humour and pathos, but it soon becomes clear it will be hard to sustain over the play’s 75-minute length. So a literal Chekhov’s gun makes a definitive interjection – and a Hell starts to break loose. Talk about the death of the author.

What happens next is hard to describe – and it would be fruitless to attempt. But the barriers between 19th-Century Russia and modern-day Ireland become increasingly hard to discern. When we talk about actors breaking the fourth wall, we rarely imagine what it might be like for characters to emerge into our reality. And when an audience member gets up of his own volition to join proceedings it’s another puzzle to decipher. Has Platonov finally arrived?

There’s a lot to absorb in Chekhov’s First Play – but its humour, its constant gear-changes and the relatively short running time make it accessible, laugh-out-loud funny and affecting. It takes a literal wrecking ball to the play and mutates it, creating a dazzling new synthesis – like a brutalist annexe on a Victorian villa.

It has inflections of the reality-twisting Black Mirror, the disturbing dissonance of Chris Morris’ hallucinatory series Jam and a dash of Ghost Stories. Yes, it is a play that goes wrong, but in a way that’s fundamental to the play, to the cast, to the audience – to reality.

What does it mean? Who cares. Chekhov’s First Play is dazzling, immersive and unique – a theatrical neutron bomb, from which something twisted, strange and new emerges.

Chekhov’s First Play
Liverpool Playhouse
Until 11 May