Dan Rebellato’s Chekhov in Hell, produced by the Drum Theatre, Plymouth, asks a strange question: what would happen if Chekhov came alive in a world of computers, reality television, talent contests and fashionable asininity in food and clothes?
The answer is, not much. And I suspect Rebellato agrees, which is why the frantic succession of two dozen short scenes veers towards a thriller structure in which Chekhov’s identity is confused with that of a Russian gangster trafficking in Eastern European prostitutes.
The playwright comes out of his coma and is introduced to his gormless, foul-mouthed niece, but it’s not at all clear how or why he’s leapt from the German spa to contemporary Britain. Simon Scardifield has Chekhov’s white suit, trim beard and pince-nez, but he’s understandably confused and wants to know “what happened”.
Eventually the Ukrainian prostitute fills him in with a news digest of two world wars, revolution, cancer, the Twin Towers and fast food. His nostalgic speech about Yalta suggests he’d rather have stayed where he was. And his wife, Olga Knipper, is calling him from another world beyond, in the Northern Lights.
Simon Stokes’ snappy production has some satirical digs at self-help groups, Twitter (Anton’s signed up and has followed Justin Bieber), psychotherapy and care in the community. But a lot of these passages have a “stand alone” vitality unrelated to any dramatic texture of dynamism. If Chekhov can’t inter-react, what’s the point of them?
It seems a long 90 minutes despite Scardifield’s discreet dignity and a stream of inventive cameos from Emily Raymond, Paul Rider, Ruth Everett, Jonathan Broadbent and Geoffrey Lumb.
The best moment is the surprise transition from the 1904 deathbed scene to the present, courtesy of a Russian folk song goosed with a nightclub beat; this promises much more than the show then delivers.