Chekhov in Hell
finished its run at Soho Theatre last night. I’ve got a slight feeling
of post-show blues, but mainly just a feeling of tremendous
satisfaction. I loved the production; I love the cast; I love the
design; it was the right theatre for the show and we had healthy
audiences throughout and great responses.
It was different in London than it was
in Plymouth. Soho strong-armed us into providing a 90-minute, rather
than 100-minute, play and so we decided to cut one whole scene
(‘Positive Flows of Energy’) rather than nip and tuck. That worked
hugely to the benefit of the play which raced forward at that key
moment. The whole thing felt pacier and less lingering (that was a long
scene). On Thursday I saw a production of the play performed by CertHE
students at East 15 Acting School. It was a terrific performance, full
of youthful energy and got a wonderful response from the audience. I was
struck though that with the extra scene in the pace of the show is kind
of wrong. By that point we need to be moving forward and that scene
lingers in the satire; by then we’ve got the point.
- The reviews were interesting. We had a very curious mix - from the Guardian and the Times raving about it and giving us four stars to the Independent and Time Out damning it with two stars. Bad reviews are momentarily winding but not that psychologically damaging, I’m finding. Obviously, one would love to get those across-the-board raves, not least for the box office, but we did fine. Very good word-of-mouth too. Two things perversely pleased me about the reviews: The good reviews described the play in the way I’d describe it. This hasn’t always happened; I’ve had good reviews where I’m pleased they like it but it’s not the play I conceived of. This suggests that what we wanted to do works. The bad reviews don’t describe the play in a way I recognise. Fiona Mountford’s amazingly damning review in the Standard and Michael Coveney’s in the Independent both describe it without giving any indication that it’s funny or even noting that the audience were laughing (even if these particular critics were not). They really didn’t ‘get it’. It’s much more worrying when critics ‘get it’ and hate it too.
- The criticisms are very varied. Some found it boring; some found it too slight; some found it offensive. Some have seen it as a satire, some as a melancholic and nihilistic statement. At least one person has seen it as a vaguely religious play. Some have criticised it for pessimism, others for being too affectionate towards its targets. One blogger thought it was racist. The Morning Star (who knew they had theatre critics?) thought we had contempt for the working class. Time Out thought we delighted in the degradation of women. Some of these accusations are demonstrable nonsense, but together they make up an interesting picture of the play, namely its political illegibility. At least, its illegibility to a set of fixed and familiar positions in political theatre. Michel Foucault said in an interview once, ‘I think I have in fact been situated in most of the squares on the political checkerboard, one after another and sometimes simultaneously: as anarchist, leftist, ostentatious or disguised Marxist, nihilist, explicit or secret anti-Marxist, technocrat in the service of Gaullism, new liberal and so on. An American professor complained that a crypto-Marxist like me was invited in the USA, and I was denounced by the press in Eastern European countries for being an accomplice of the dissidents. None of these descriptions is important by itself; taken together, on the other hand, they mean something. And I must admit that I rather like what they mean’. I rather like what the reviews mean, because it’s a play that is trying to do political theatre differently.
Part of the problem, I think, is that if
you’re having to write a review, you inevitably start thinking about
the review as you’re watching it - and this play doesn’t explain itself
too readily so I sense that some of the critics foreclosed on the play,
made crass decisions about what it meant too early, and therefore
produced ludicrous conclusions. But hey, all responses are fine. It’s a
difficult thing to respond to a new play.
I’m also encouraged by the stirrings of interest from a variety of places. A Broadway producer liked it; a German agent liked it; a director in New Zealand and another in Australia liked it. There’s a school in Somerset keen to do it and at least two acting schools interested in it. It seems like a play that speaks to people and I’m proud of us all for managing to do that.