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Cheerio Chekhov in Belgrade

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I have mixed feelings about Frank Castorf's undeniably interesting Berlin production of Chekhov's Three Sisters at the BITEF festival in Belgrade.

First, it's muddled in with a digested version of Chekhov's novella, The Peasants, in order to define more specifically the brutality and incestuousness of life in the remote provincial army barricade: the play is re-titled "To Moscow, To Moscow."

Secondly, it is acted by a cast of palpably brilliant artists, some of them very well known, in an aggressive style of unremitting hysteria, as if to make ironic play with their Teutonic orientation. (There's much sadistic erotic undertow, lots of shouting.)

Sixthly, and lastly, it makes some of the most ingenious use of onstage live video recording to interact with live performance that I've seen: and there's an overpowering sense of trans-generational Russian-ness about it all, despite the artistic impertinence.

But, oh, the galumphing attempts at humour, especially in the excruciating figure of the schoolmaster, speaking in hopelessly emphatic English, embarrassingly played by an actor who then sits down at the piano and plays brilliantly.

Soliony leers at the onstage video camera on the line about being a character in Lermontov, dragging his sweat-drenched locks across his face like some even more deranged version of Tiny Tim.

A German's sense of humour is about as reliable as an Irishman's sense of direction: all over the place. There's a moment when Andrei embraces Natalya in a rubber winding sheet: why, and is that supposed to be kinky, or funny, or what?

Inside domestic life at the Prozorovs  is a bestial nightmare, the soldiers joining in the garden shed sewer life like cattle in a sex orgy. Cheers to Chekhov, up yours, Anton!

I sat there thinking -- and I only stayed for the first half, which went on for two and a half hours -- thank God for the National Theatre, the RSC, the Donmar...

Ah, then, I can hear you say: stay home and read the text. Good point. The theatre should be a playground, a free school, a danger zone. And Castorf's cast-off Chekhov certainly ticks those boxes, big time.
The production was staged in the magnificent National Theatre on the city's main square. The last time I saw this very same play in the very same theatre was on the very same night, virtually, eleven years ago. That version came from the Ukraine and was infinitely superior. But not half so disgracefully entertaining.

That was also the night of President Milosevich's fateful defeat at the election polls, and I was literally swept through the crowded streets on the sort of wild, protesting, democratic fervour (but without guns) that David Cameron has just been applauding in Tripoli.

Why was it easier to associate the Ukrainian Chekhov with the liberal tendencies of that night than it was to associate German Chekhov with anything sad or optimistic about present day Belgrade? Because, at the end of the day, German Chekhov is soulless, decadent and reeking of ingrained moral putrefaction. Perhaps that's the point of it.


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