Chekov’s First Play at Bristol Old Vic

It’s Mayfest and the underlying hum of excitement upon entering Bristol Old Vic was palpable tonight. As the audience noticed and fondled the headphones hooked on the back of the generously cushioned seats, the air became thick with expectation. I have to confess though, if I had not been reviewing Chekov’s First Play, I would not have bought a ticket. The last Chekov play I saw was in 1989, a student production of the Cherry Orchard and I swore to myself that I would not subject myself to another dry traditional production again. If I had kept the promise I made to myself, I would have quite frankly been a fool. I am instinctively drawn to the anticipation of a ‘great chaotic mess’ as outlined in the flyer handed to me on the way in.

The over blown pomp and ceremony of inaccessibility I personally feel around the ‘old plays’ was swiftly burst by the ‘Directors’ opening speech. It’s quite thrilling to be spoken to through headphones and I’m instantly warmed by the jovial delivery of the ‘Director’. As I look around the audience I can see the stiff shoulders of the audience visibly relax as we are spoken to and teased before the curtains open. We are authoritively told our seats are ‘like a little home’ and we are ready to receive what is about to begin.

The ‘Director’s voice inside my head talks me through the traditional opening of Chekov’s First Play, explaining the subtext and the set. It’s what I often do for my children at a dance performance and I appreciate the narration filling in the gaps of the story unfolding on the stage. We are told ‘this is a play for our times as it focuses on property debt and Viagra’. As the ‘Director’ slowly unravels and actors ‘forget’ lines, it’s joyful to witness the cracks in the traditional structure appearing before my eyes. The slow build of the ‘Director’ having a breakdown live and intimately in the audience ears.

Gradually the breakdown infiltrates everything, calling the unspoken into the air – naming the unnamed, calling all the actors frauds and pushing at the edges of fiction, clawing the air asking ‘where is real life?’

The final breakthrough from traditional to contemporary performance is underlined by an infectious piece of music pumping like a heartbeat through the headphones. The cast broke out into an uplifting choreographed movement and a wrecking ball smashed through the front façade of the residential house that had been a backdrop for the play.

Visually stunning, shocking, and breaking rules from beginning to end. Literally great balls of fire, giant drills, intravenous wine, bare breasts, audience members swapping places with actors and the birthing of the sea. The stage is constantly teaming with life from beginning to end. The actors burst out of their characters cage knocking at the fictitious bricks of the forth wall.

Through the course of this production we travel through time effortlessly. Beginning in a past covered in the dust of our ancestors, the performance casts off any traditional straight-jackets. We are left with a gentle reminder to value our history. Before too long the contemporary light we are bathed in will turn dark and we will be sat in the shadows as the youth of tomorrow look back on our stories and judge us.

Go and see ‘Dead Centre’ perform Chekov’s First Play and enjoy the hour long journey from the insular to the extreme. Book tickets now before it’s gone.

Mayfest is on in venues all over Bristol until 22nd May

Review by Anita MacCallum

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