D’Animate weaves a triptych of lesser known Chekhov plays into an almost seamless single entity. The Bear tells the story of an apparently inconsolable widow romanced by a self-proclaimed misogynist. The Proposal is a wealthy hypochondriac’s attempt to propose to the neighbour’s working class daughter, and Swan Song is an aged actor’s reflection on the sacrifices that he has made to achieve his glittering but lonely career.
The stage is simple: a gothic table adorned with a photograph of Elena Ivonovna Popova’s late husband, a chaise longue and a drinks table. Popova is already at the table when one enters the theatre. She is dressed in black and reading. It is seven years, to the day, since her husband passed and she is drifting between a sorrow that is contrived, and a joy that she is still faithful to him, thus making her a better person than he ever was in his philandering days.
While she is chasing her white whale, Grigory Stepanovitch, alcoholic, misogynist and general thug, Smirnov, (one can always forgive the puns) storms the stage, demanding and shouting, whereupon opposites attract and they fall in love, much to the chagrin of the timid butler. At this point the actors take a bow, which makes the audience believe that the three plays are to be separate performances, however they do not take another bow until the end of the show. If they had forgone this touch of self-congratulation it would have flowed more succinctly as the next scene begins with some slapstick that ends with the butler transforming into Vasili Svietlovidoff, a successful actor, waking up alone and hungover on his stage with a mixture of regret and pride. The crowning moment is The Proposal where Ivan Vassiliyitch Lomov, a wealthy landowner, wishes to propose to the neighbour’s daughter, a commoner, and constantly has heart palpitations every time they have a disagreement. The play closes with Swan Song, Vasili Svietlovidoff’s final vignette of Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet to an empty theatre in the dead of night.
Sarah Hastings, as Popova / Natalya Stepanova, has taken her characters and made them one, drifting between weak and strong roles. She draws the audience in and makes one believe in her stubbornness and her frailty with equal measure yet, in my opinion, the contrast between characters could have been more pronounced. As a recent graduate she will probably be a shining light to watch for on the stage.
Will Mytum, as Luka / Stephan Stepanich / Vassily Vassilich, is an unsurpassable character actor who is as versatile in Shakespeare as he is in Chekhov. His timid butler gives him age, yet his broken actor gives him power. Michael Rivers, as Grigory Smirnov / Ivan Vassilyevich / Nikita, is the founder of d’Animate and is brusque and brutal whilst still holding humility. His skill and control of the stage is palpable.
D’Animate is a new theatre group that understands the stage and what it is meant to deliver. The audience on the opening night was small, which can often be the way in The Courtyard Theatre, an unrecognised brilliant theatre space, but they performed with such aplomb and power that whether it were one hundred people or just one, satisfaction is guaranteed.
By Mark Speed