Review: Wild Honey
Rediscovered Chekhov in the forest is a dark delight.
Wild Honey is a creature born of collaboration. Beginning as an untitled 5-hour monster of a play Chekhov wrote as a young medical student, it was abandoned but 'discovered' in 1921. In a way, it was both rediscovered and reinvented by Michael Frayn's 1984 adaptation – Maddy Trepanier, in this Week 2 production, has continued that tradition further.
The play feels almost like an early Cherry Orchard, with both the blossom-speckled set and the stock characters familiar to any Chekhov fan, such as the Doctor, the old man, the womanising scoundrel, and yet it takes on new life here, invigorated both by Frayn's adaptation and Trepanier's direction.
Setwise, looking at the stage before the play begins, there is something of the school play in the painted set – but as the first act progresses, the lighting changes and the set becomes more than a series of painted trees, becoming a dreamlike forest, the outside of a house, the landscape for comedy and tragedy; the second half's set even more of a joy. The lighting is excellent in demarcating changes of mood, time of day and location and, in moments such as when fireworks are depicted through lighting alone, it really is very beautiful. Also worthy of note is Michael Bascom's wonderful original music, and his role as leader of the chorus which provides refreshing interludes of traditional Russian music every time a scene weighs too heavily on us.
It is intriguing that, in a late 19th-century play, a woman, Anna Petrovna (Inge-Vera Lipsius) for the most part holds court. At one point, there is a discussion between characters about the queen of the chessboard: just as Platonov plays with the women who "hang around his neck", as he puts it, so Anna Petrovna uses the men around her as her little pawns. Lipsius plays her with incredible poise and grace, with Petrovna's sexual power perfectly understated but omnipresent. In fact, it is the women who really steal the show as they vie for the attention of Jesper Eriksson's charmingly loathsome Platonov.
There is something of von Horvath's Don Juan in Platonov's inevitable demise – the natural consequence of spinning too many plates in one forest. Eriksson maintains a strong energy throughout as he plays with all his possible lovers, and he builds this energy to mania in the final moments of the play, although some of his lines are at times quiet enough to be lost.
For me, a standout performance was Rory Russell as the retired Colonel, father of Platonov's long-suffering wife Sasha, and the young Doctor. He encapsulated the spirit of both Frayn and Chekhov in his ridiculousness, and by the final moments of the play, he practically only had to open his mouth for me to start laughing (catching up with the cast in the ADC bar afterwards, when I mentioned how much I'd enjoyed his performance, he replied with "Ah, so that was you!") – yet at no point did I feel like he'd taken it too far.
There is often an expectation that Chekhov will be played naturalistically – and yet, with such a breadth of stock characters, and with Frayn's pantomime-esque influence, it's impossible to place such limits on the characters. It seems almost a necessity that they begin to transcend into the farcical. Platonov lying blind drunk across three schoolroom chairs, surrounded by concerned family, friends, and thwarted lovers, is a moment that truly reflects what one cast member said to describe the play: that it is being sold as a comedy of errors, but is really more of a tragedy.
Although genuinely very funny, at times we laugh as we might at Beckett – if only so that (as Lincoln said) we do not cry.