Before, after and always Chekhov

Chekov’s First Play (Dead Centre)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

September 21 – 23

From its at-door sign warning of loud, sudden noises, coarse language, nudity, sexual references, pyrotechnics and smoking on stage, it is easy to recongise that Dead Centre’s “Chekhov’s First Play” is going to be take audiences far from the usual Chekov places. Yet still, in its disassembling of the great Russian playwright’s work, as well as theatre itself, the play takes its audiences to some surprising but ultimately superb places.

The show begins somewhat traditionally, apart from the fact that audience members are all wearing headphones in order to obtain Bush Moukarzel’s audio director’s commentary. This allows, he claims, for him to unclutter the complicated work and, accordingly, his words include sippets of explanation of its play’s subtext, highlight the universality and thus modernity of its metaphors about property and clarify the dramatic concept of Chekhov’s gun… providing the cast don’t muck it up by accidently skipping a few pages of dialogue. There is humour too as he makes metatheatrical observations regarding the actors, such as in reaction to their underplay of lines, moving towards offer of his opinion of them, including their flaws.

The soap-opera story of Anton Chekov’s first play, “Platonov”, which he started writing ‘before he was Chekhov’ at just 18 years of age, is of the widowed Anna Petrovna who can no longer afford the upkeep on her giant house (represented by Andrew Clancy’s imposing and immaculate redbrick set) and the benefactor trying to woo her despite her love belonging to another, already married man. At five hours in unadapted form (thanks to 83 scenes) and with a 20 character cast and multiple themes, the ambitiously complicated play is generally accepted as unstageable.

But this is far from a traditional telling, and not just due to the headphones. Things begin to change towards the abstract when the obscure Platonov arrives on stage, with the actors slipping in and out of character. As they await and then laud Platonov’s arrival, the Chekhovian language begins to breakdown; as Chinese takeaway is ordered, mention of traditional superstition is googlised and talk even turns to Kim and Kanye. Chaos soon ensures as the show’s stately staging is wrecked (literally) and the gun reappears. And it works… mainly due to Platonov, the central character, who does not utter a single word as the world implodes around him. To say more would be to ruin the impressive imagery and pack-a-punch impact of the work’s modern application of its after and always themes of ownership, translated too within a feminist discourse. All cast members are impressive, whether performing the naturalism of Chekhov’s original script or when within the heightened melodrama of later lip-synced sections.

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“Chekhov’s First Play” is a hugely inventive work, not just in the realisation of its rebuild from the broken down fragments of its source material, but its concept of modern examination of a classic and show that the leading character can be any of us. Like “An Oak Tree” and Gob Squad’s “Kitchen (You’ve Never Had It So Good”, with a bit of last year’s “Confidence Man”, “Chekhov’s First Play” creates a truly memorable and though-provoking theatrical experience through its insightful reconciliation of Chekhov’s trademark naturalism with the commotion of our everyday world. Go for the comfort of its classic premise but stay for the challenge of its shattering of preconceptions. And then share your thoughts so that others might also join in the incredible privilege we have to be seeing such acclaimed work from this year’s ‘Irish Rebellion’ Brisbane Festival Artists in residence.

Limitation of life

Lippy (Dead Centre)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

September 14 – 17

Dead Centre’s “Lippy” is very much a festival show, fascinating in its inception and powerful in its execution, but far from everyone’s cup of tea.

Things begin on a slither of stage ahead of a projection screen. The setup of three chairs and a tech station (manned by Adam Welsh) on stage feels quite Brechtian in a way that suits its later meta-theatre mentions of the work’s one act approach (intermissions seem to be out of fashion these days). But it also suits its clever introductory premise of presuming people are gathered for a post-show discussion led by the work’s writer, Bush Moukarzel as a moderator of sorts. This is perhaps the show’s most interesting section as online and movie clips are shared by Mark O’Halloran in explanation of the nature and limitations of lip-reading (context is of considerable importance). And Moukarzel’s interjection references to the Dublin-based company’s first week Brisbane Festival work “Souvenir” make for a nice touch to those who are seeing the Irish artists in resident’s trilogy of shows.

As move is made from focus on putting fake words in powerful people’s mouths (as seen through a hilarious Mick Romney mashup) to the power of trying to put real words back into the mouths of ‘ordinary’ folk, the work’s premise becomes clearer.  Lip reader O’Halloran, talks about his work with police investigating the extraordinarily strange real-life deaths of four women, three sisters and their aunt, apparently by voluntary starvation after barricading themselves in the house they shared in Ireland in 2000. And when he does an onstage demonstration of his skill in interpretation the work merges into the multilayered women’s story, of sorts, through recreation of a crime scene to be inhabited by the women (Joanna Banks, Clara Simpson, Liv O’Donoghue and Ali White).

There are haunting scenes as the women appear to be attempting to destroy evidence of their earlier lives into garbage bags of shredded documents and shattered plates. When they seek to speak, however, their sounds are disjointed and ultimately overcome by white noise. Indeed, application of this reimagining of the family’s final days, is far from realistic. Staging is precise in its chaos, but intriguing in its imagery, for example, when perspective is played with by positioning a table setting, complete with characters around it, up against a wall. Supported by a dynamic soundscape, this creates some powerful moments, none more so than when performers are dragged about like mannequins.

In the hands of Directors Ben Moukarzel and Ben Kidd, there is immense effect in its silences too, as should be the case in a show of such few words. And often throughout its palatable 70 minute duration, audience members find themselves in shared shock within its economy of words and measured pace; it is uncomfortable, but compelling, almost-voyeuristic viewing.

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Things end as the show was conceived, through words, with a final soliloquy shared on screen as just a close up of one of the dead sisters, Catherine’s lips, stimulating memorable imagery (though drawing on Samuel Beckett’s “Not I”) through her evocative statements about being witness to the process as opposed to event of death and of the thoughts of her last living moments.

“Lippy” is far from a joyous work; anticipatory reading of any kind is sure to prepare the audience for its chilly content. And any show with consideration of tough themes like identity and death is sure to give its attendees much to take away in contemplation. The fact that it is based on real-life events, however, not only gives added weight to its ‘art intimating life’ themes, but proves the truth of the adage that truth is often stranger than fiction.

Pondering Proust

Souvenir (Dead Centre)

Theatre Republic, La Boite Studio

September 6 – 10

“Souvenir” is very festival is its feel (#inagoodway), so perfectly suited to a showing at Brisfest’s Theatre Republic precinct. Pre-show audience members see its performer Bush Moukarzel centre stage but facing the wall, jogging on a treadmill, surrounded by a clutter of cardboard boxes. Even as the boxes tumble, however, and pages are cascaded through the air, there is a clear deliberateness to the mess. The obscurely labelled boxes (‘mum’, ‘the theatre’, ‘bacon’, ‘broken glass’, ‘dust’ etc etc) signpost, in some part, the focus of the story he goes on the share, and also house its range of equally obscure supporting props.

Moukarzel is an engaging performer as the lovelorn protagonist, meaning that never does interest wane, despite its patchy narrative based on the world’s longest book, the French classic, “Remembrance of Things Past (In Search of Lost Time)” by Marcel Proust. The story is of his love and loss of the ambiguous Albertine (to give relatability to the assumed predominantly straight audience), but it is also so much more in its story of exploration of memory, jealousy and time, meaning that familiarity with Proust is no prerequisite to its appreciation.

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With a content range from Springsteen to some maths equations, “Souvenir” is a difficult show to define; the fragmented nature of its hour long meditation on personal and social amnesia is reflection of the ideas of time and memory, so core to its premise. It is certainly quirky, featuring as it does, the most memorable of endings as audience members engage in a communal personal experience though the lenses of their very own viewmasters. But beyond its idiosyncrasies it is a very well-written work, clever in its self-awareness with Brisfest references and meta-theatre mentions of, for example of what worked in dress rehearsal, in conjunction with its use of text from all range of other sources from T. S. Eliot and William Shakespeare to Orson Wells and even Charlie Kaufman.

Most of all, “Souvenir” provides insight into human observations and is, consequently, full of ideas for audience members to ponder, especially around the question of ‘what do we really know anyway’, making it a worthwhile festival feature.

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