Wild Honey at Hampstead Theatre
A play without a name was written by Anton Chekhov when he was around 20 years old and was only discovered posthumously. It has made its way to the stage a few times over the years, usually as Platonov, and this is the second version to be performed this year after David Hare’s adaptation at the National Theatre. It is once again directed by Jonathan Kent, who stepped in when acclaimed director Howard Davies passed away just as rehearsals were due to start.
Possibly an early draft that was never polished, the original text would have spanned around six hours. Writer Michael Frayn was so excited by its moments of brilliance when he first read it, that he immediately found himself “longing to fix it”, and so he set out to edit, adjust and add to the raw material. The result is Wild Honey, a polished work that does full justice to Chekhov’s humorous vein by allowing the farcical elements to outshine the inherent tragedy, thus making it highly amusing.
Platonov, the central protagonist, is a charismatic yet hopelessly fallible Don Juan trying to juggle the attentions of four women. One summer day, a group of relatives, friends and neighbours gather under one roof and all their secret liaisons come to light. Most characters are engaged in romantically pursuing another as they are themselves pursued by an unwanted suitor. This leads to a tragicomic, and quite literal, hide-and-seek that leaves one pondering the absurd intricacies of human relations.
In true Chekhovian style, the set consists of a charming arrangement of birches framed by a wooden structure that covers the background from top to bottom, and extends towards the centre to create walls and dividers. Some scenes are beautifully choreographed, such as the comedy of errors scenario that unfolds in the garden, when characters slip in and out of the treed space with effortless grace to find, or escape from, their lovers. The performances are outstanding as the actors bring their roles alive with Stanislavskian flair. Each has a distinct and easily distinguishable personality and a set of quirks that single the character out in some way.
Leaving comparisons with other adaptations aside, Wild Honey makes for a wonderful introduction to the Russian playwright. The light-heartedness in tone makes the work perfectly accessible, and it also foreshadows all the themes and motifs that become characteristic of Chekhov’s work later in his career. At times it feels that the action could be tighter but it is otherwise a delightfully interpreted and masterfully directed production. Most likely, this is the mood that Chekhov himself would have liked to see created when his plays reach the audience.
Photo: Johan Persson
Wild Honey is at Hampstead Theatre from 2nd December 2016 until 21st January 2017. Book your tickets here.