Theatre audiences with vague memories of English Lit classes focussing on Chekhov plays dealing with land reforms and generational farm ownership may be surprised by this vibrant production. The emerging theatre group d’Animate have reworked three of Anton Chekhov’s one-act plays into a fast paced, ‘bite-sized’ format, with the whole production clocking in at around an hour.
Opening with a frenetic retelling of The Bear, the evening gets off to a blistering start. The story of a house-bound widow who is confronted by a neighbour demanding that she clear her late husband’s debts, the piece quickly moves across tragedy, farce and slapstick. Sarah Hastings and Michael Rivers offer larger than life performances as the resilient Popova and the vodka fuelled Smirnov, with pistol duelling, confrontation and shouted accusations all in plentiful supply. Will Mytum provides a more balanced role as the elderly footman Luka, continually begging for the tumult to cease.
After some nimble stage adjustments, the production moves on to Mytum’s excellent performance in Swan Song. He manages to display a care-worn, hung-over actor remembering – and thanks to the clever nuances of this production – actually reliving the glory days of his career. The dark and pained look at memory and disappointment provides the perfect counterpoint to the to and fro comedies of the other two plays on offer.
The Proposal sees Mytum as Stepan Stepanich, a local father and land-owner. He is visited by a neighbouring hypochondriac lad looking to unite the two properties and families with a marriage to the young Natalya. As with The Bear, the frenzied arguments and relationship trauma bring plenty of laughs and more than a few grains of truth about the human condition and property ownership. Mytum’s broad Yorkshire accent brings a kind of stoic resolve to Rivers’ energetic displays of anxiety and stress. Hastings offers more humour as the tomboyish Natalya, providing an intense interplay between suitor and father. The best satire never really ages and this certainly holds true here.
Closing with the “all the world’s a stage” monologue from Shakespeare’s As You Like It, seems a slightly odd choice, and the evening could have benefited from a more defined conclusion, but by that point the condensed theatre production has been so lively there is no real cause for complaint.
The depth of respect the company has for Chekhov’s work comes through loud and clear and the energy on display is formidable. Indeed, credit must be given to the cast for staying so animated on the hottest ever recorded day in the UK. A dexterous example of how to repackage classic theatre for a 21st century audience, Bitesize Chekhov promises a snapshot of comedy and drama for experienced theatre-goers and novices alike.