“You think you’re some sort of Hamlet, but you’re just a provincial chauvinist pig.” In the first act, one of Platonov’s admirers seems to hit the nail on the head. Our anti-hero, a school teacher in the Russian countryside, is depressed, riddled with angst, misses his father, and can’t quite make up his mind what he wants to do about it. So far, so Hamlet.
But Platonov has more than one Ophelia to worry about. His messy mind (and hair) proves too attractive for the women around him, as they literally throw themselves at his skinny frame. The Ham-ster would probably be picking at bones at this point, but our man observes: “Other men wrestle with questions of Earth-shattering importance, I am exercised by the question of which skirt to chase”. And so we now know, he’s bright enough not only to see through other people, but himself too, and that’s really his ruination.
Chekhov can be a tricky one to translate — there are puns and cultural differences to attend to. But Polish director Helena Kaut-Howson steam-rollers over any stiff awkwardness we might expect, turning the stage into a cacophonous circus of drink, music, sex and brutality. Group scenes often have overlapping dialogue, and the actors throw each other around with such disregard for safety that the occasionally real “ouch” can be heard. The set is garish silver with a red floor and coloured lanterns which help the big top image. But there’s also the reality that it’s mostly set in a primary school, and so chairs are comically small and just made for falling-off.
It’s simply the most daring adaptation of Chekhov you’re likely to see — as though you’re watching the whole thing at a sprint. The soviet humour is captured superbly, even with a British cast. The doctor who pretends to hang himself, then check his own pulse is a great moment of clowning, while the widow Anna Petrovna elicits a sinfully slapstick suggestion of her own, dressed in leather and sporting a riding crop.
The story, at a distance, is one of lost heritage and unfulfilled potential. But the experience of this beautifully instinctive and raw spectacle is one of pure joy. The subject matter couldn’t be further from the tone — and yet it sings with truth. And that, you could say while you fondle a skull, is some very clever stuff.
Sons Without Fathers runs at the Arcola Theatre, 23 Ashwin Street, until 15 June. Tickets are £14. Londonist saw this show on a complimentary ticket.