Monday, 19 December 2016

Theatre review: Wild Honey

Nobody could accuse Ed Hall's Hampstead Theatre of wild programming, but the word itself is one they're very fond of - we've had Wildefire, Wild and now Wild Honey, Michael Frayn's version of Chekhov's unfinished Platonov. This revival was due to be directed by Howard Davies, who sadly died at the beginning of rehearsals, and his replacement should be well-versed in the play: Jonathan Kent directed a different version of Platonov as part of his Young Chekhov trilogy at the National only a few months ago. There's another connection to that day-long epic, as Geoffrey Streatfeild returns to the one play out of the three that he didn't appear in this summer. Frayn's play is a shorter, broader version of the story of Platonov (Streatfeild,) a provincial schoolteacher who's spent the winter in virtual hibernation with his wife Sasha (Rebecca Humphries) and their baby son.

As the weather gets warmer their friends return from town and Sergey (Joe Bannister) introduces his new wife, Sofya (Sophie Rundle.) But Platonov and Sofya have a past, and he's soon carrying out an affair with her - as well as with the widow Anna Petrovna (Justine Mitchell.)

I think Wild Honey got off on the wrong foot with me right from the opening moments between Anna Petrovna and Dr Triletzky (Gunnar Cauthery,) who force a terrified servant to carry a box of lit fireworks for their own amusement. It's meant to come across more slapstick than cruel, but it's hard to care about characters' love lives when you dislike them from the off. And I think I may just have a certain amount of Chekhov fatigue, especially with what is largely the same play I saw in August - Kent's is a difficult situation, and it's unfair to expect him to have fresh new takes on a play he's just directed, but the fact remains it doesn't feel distinct enough from the last one.

However tired I might be of the writer though there are still moments when he shines: Chekhov is one of those playwrights, like Rattigan, whose work gives the distinct impression that he was a thoroughly decent man, and it's striking to see a turn-of-the-20th-century Russian man show more sympathy for a woman whose intelligence is being ignored, than many men can manage today.

The production finally comes to life in the final act where all the women smitten with Platonov, as well as Marya (Jo Herbert) who's suing him for unwanted advances, converge on his schoolhouse. As everything falls apart the mix of the absurd and the tragic is perfectly pitched. But until this point it was hard to see what Frayn's version of the story was really trying to say, and so it was hard to stay interested.

Wild Honey by Michael Frayn, based on an untitled play by Anton Chekhov, is booking until the 21st of January at Hampstead Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Johan Persson

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