“I have just woken up”
What would happen if Russian playwright Anton Chekhov were to wake from a hundred-year-long coma to find himself slap bang in the middle of modern day London? What his keen observational eye make of this radically different society? That’s the question Dan Rebellato poses in his new comedy Chekhov in Hell which plays at the Soho Theatre after a premiere run at the Drum Theatre Plymouth late last year. Taking Hell to be our contemporary world, in particular the metropolitan excesses of London, Chekhov is exposed to a series of fashionistas, molecular gastronomists, lap-dancing clubs, Twitter, MTV Cribs, even people-trafficking gangsters in a set of interview-like situations, all the while the police are trying to track him down to reunite him with a long-distance relative.
At the centre of the play, Simon Scardifield (taking over from Simon Gregor and returning to acting after some translation work for the Royal Court with Our Private Life) was excellent as Chekhov, saying really quite little in terms of spoken dialogue but speaking volumes with his sympathetic performance, being so far removed from his time zone yet beginning to deal with his own issues by situating himself in his own comfort zone and lending a considerate listening ear to a vast swathe of this new society. Some of the funniest moments come with his struggle to comprehend the modern English of various sections of society, exposing the meaninglessness of much of what comes out of our mouths.
Paul Rider found a nice depth and interest to his Russian mobster Sasha; Jonathan Broadbent brought his customary vivacity to a range of random characters; Emily Raymond’s WPC family officer was a model of blank-eyed support, trotting out empty platitudes with every statement, but chief in the ensemble for me was Ruth Everett. Though the majority of the play with pretty much evenly split amongst them in terms of labour, towards the end she has two of the hugest moments of emotional impact in the show: the first as a television producer who nails the nihilistic malaise that Rebellato sees blighting much of urban professional life, and the second as a young Ukrainian prostitute who gives Chekhov a potted history lesson of the events of the twentieth century, in Russian, and consequently breaking his heart. Both were spellbindingly good and all the more so for coming at the end of what must be an exhausting show to perform.
But for all the enthusiasm in the company, there’s no disguising that this is just the one conceit stretched out over 90 minutes and though there are moments where it works brilliantly, there’s also something a bit off with this Hell. There’s a big disconnect between scenes, the titles are projected onto the rear wall throughout and we’re asked to accept that Chekhov has made it to each of these scenarios in which people just open their hearts to him. This wouldn’t be a problem if it weren’t contrasted with a couple of story-threads which do emerge and are pursued throughout and consequently grew to be of more interest. I was intrigued by how Chekhov’s niece came to accept his existence in her life and also the people-trafficking plot piqued my interest but neither were explored properly to any real degree.
So an interesting concept, attractively played and one which never loses the interest. Rebellato’s vision of this modern society does tend a little towards the extreme, in creating a series of dramatic moments and bleak emotionality which in turn results in a loss of realism and reason for Chekhov to remain in the midst of the process, where a bit more balance might have suggested a potential way out of Hell for society. But enjoyable for the most part and stuffed full of great acting: worth a punt I’d say.