Saturday 28 October 2017

Tchekov At The House Of Special Purpose - Theatre Review

What: Tchekov At The House Of Special Purpose
When: 25 October - 5 November 2017
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Written by: R. Johns
Directed by: Alex Menglet
Performed by: Maria Paula Afanador, Alice Blatt, Carolyn Bock, Milijana Cancar, Jim Daly, Greg Fryer, Huw Jennings, Adam May, Asleen Mauthoor, Meg Spencer, Peter Stratford, and Yvette Turner.
Set by: Peter Mumford
Costume by: Michael Mumford
Lighting by: Shane Grant
Sound and Stage Management by: Millie Levakis-Lucas

Maria Paula Afandor and Huw Jennings
There was a time, a time long ago, when the world was different. It was a world full of beautiful objects and great despair. Something had to change. Something had to be lost. And so we kept what we couldn't live without and gave up the beautiful object. Tchekov At The House Of Special Purpose playing now at La Mama Courthouse marks that moment the deed was done. The Romanovs of Russia were executed and an uglier and yet far more dynamic (if confused) world was released.

Ipatiev House was the last residence of Tsar Nicholas II and his family. Ironically this residence had the same name as the Monastery where the Romanov dynasty ascended to the the throne. And thus the circle was complete. It is a shame this wasn't referenced in the play because it would have given the work  a meta frame which it desperately needs.

Instead the play focuses on the final moments of their life, the experience of diminishment and social change the focus rather than any hint of cause or consequence. It is a singular moment in time when what was has become petrified and the only way to move it is to destroy it.

Ipatiev House became designated as 'The House Of Special Purpose' for the Ural branch of the Communist Party. We know now what that purpose was. It must be horrific to know you will die but know not when. The Tsar (Daly)  and his wife Alexandra (Bock) must undoubtedly have known they would not leave this place alive, but what of their four daughters?

Olga (Batt), Tatiana (Spencer), Maria (Turner), and of course Anastasia (Mauthoor) were only young women. For them the dream of a future had to be kept alive.

This is how we come to Tchekov. Johns likens the four daughters to The Three Sisters in Tchekov's world. Rather than harking back to an idealised memory of Moscow, these girls cannot let go of their trinkets of privilege - none of them can. So while they starve and freeze and gather layers of dust and grime over their royal bodies Tatiana insists they rehearse the Tchekov play. Just asTchekov's Olga, Maria, and Irina never return to Moscow, this play will never be performed and the Romanov girls will never return to the world.

Johns does a magnificent job of blending and matching much of the Tchekovian style to her play. Some beautiful character detail between the three older Romanovs to the Tchekov's sisters takes place, with Anastasia matched to the character of Andrei. There was a Romanov son but Johns chooses to leave him out except through references - probably because there was not place in the conceit because of the extra (and most famous) daughter.

The family cook and doctor were incarcerated with them which was a perfect link to Tchekov, and the Soviet guards round out this fan fiction play. With this cast Johns is able to play with Tchekov's style and structure as well as his melancholy - although for me it fell more into a Gorky-esque tone as the script lacks the humour and absurdity Tchekov brought to his play(s).

This is where Menglet hits his stride as director. Menglet brings the authenticity to this play. His cultural aesthetic understands where the humour in the pathos is - a facet of Tchekov so often overlooked in western post-Stanislavski theatre making. He can see the absurd and is not afraid to face it because without it we cannot understand why and how these people can stay alive.

On the flip side though, at times the additions of dance and play he inserted really get in the way and stand out as not connected to the writing. Of course, this is always the tension when a story is told which is not your own. For me the problem is in the play. This Russian tale is not John's story and Menglet is trying to layer in truth. It works enough to make the play beautiful but does not innately meld.

Menglet doesn't do everything right though. There is another play written in England in 2009 of very similar name and exact topic. That play was criticised for having no meta-purpose and Johns' play fairs no better. Menglet tries to layer in issues of equality but there is no content to work with so these forays end up dangling dangerously in the breeze.

Usually I would just say it doesn't work but in his efforts Menglet makes a horrific mistake in casting. Fryer is one of the best actors to ever have graced our stages and he does a magnificent job with the material he is given but at one point I was silently screaming at the play to not do what it was about to do. Cast as the unwaveringly loyal Cook, Fryer is placed in a position where the only non-white actor in the cast is the loyal servant and then to make matters worse he is stripped and covered with white flour! I still have a hollow feeling thinking about it. If this was perspectivised in any way it would be different, but for me this was a horrific thing to do without more care and intention in modern Australia.

Aside from this tragic error, overall it is a fine cast who work well as an ensemble. Daly and Brock match each other well in their despair and insanity. I was strongly reminded of the parents in Pride And Prejudice - the retreating, idealised father and the neurotic mother. The sisters are a beautiful group of "porcelain dolls" trapped between childhood and the realities of being an adult.

In the program Menglet talks about how important it was to have the guards portrayed by two strong women. Again, there is nothing in the script to support or deny a gender commentary  so it is a decision which neither adds nor detracts from the story. I do note that the doctor (Stratford) spends the entire show in a wheelchair so this could have been a great opportunity for a disabled actor...

Whilst I cannot endorse Tchekov At The House Of Special Purpose because of the casting, it is stunning as a piece of theatrical beauty. The conceit behind the writing works, Menglet's aesthetic brings beauty and the production elements (especially Mumford's dresses for the girls) support the story completely.

2.5 Stars

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