Spirited and kooky in places, Corn Exchange’s new Chekov revival gets off to a cracking start. Sadly, the production loses its momentum in the second half, however, as it struggles with the restrictions of Chekov’s original.
In the late 19th century, Chekov’s notion of a theatre grounded in inaction and stasis, in which the drama emerges from character psychology, was provocative and revolutionary. In contemporary revivals of his work, however, this ‘style’ frequently comes across as simply static and inert, and burdened with scenarios and verbal exchanges that today seem — following a long century of Freud — like clichéd psychobabble.
Thankfully, Corn Exchange spare us most of that here, but — like all things repressed — it returns in the second half with a vengeance.
In the first half, director Annie Ryan brilliantly teases out the vivacity in Chekov, while writer Michael West’s re-imagining of the characters and their situation is a vivid and absorbing one, presenting modern Irish characters who seem at times like they belong in 1950s melodrama.
Significantly, there’s a gender swap for one of the characters in the bizarre love quadrangle at the play’s centre, but it’s one that energises the dynamics onstage and deepens Chekov’s original study of human relations.
The play is also enjoyably ‘meta’ in this first half. Jane McGrath’s Constance is a contemporary theatre-maker who wishes to find new forms of expression. Her whole shtick, however, is merely a wry parody of the conventions of today’s ‘cutting edge’ theatre practice, with West even brazenly working in a direct nod to a ‘contemporary’ Chekov piece from last year in which his wife (Ryan) was one of the actors.
Overall, the self-aware comic tone of the first half is thrilling and it’s captured perfectly by the actors, among them Derbhle Crotty, Rory Brennan and Louis Lovett.
In the second half, however, West tests the original play less severely. All the blather about writing becomes cloying, while Chekov’s tragic arc becomes an albatross around the production’s neck.