Chekhov and farce don’t mix. It’s not that we have to be stringent about obeying the circumstances Chekhov was writing in (I’m not a fan of period dress productions). But it’s worth remembering that farce as a genre is very closely linked to melodrama, which is what Chekhov later came to write against. There might be farcical elements in Chekhov’s messy untitled first play (most versions are called Platonov), but there also might be reasons why it isn’t performed very often. ‘[I]t’s essentially a Chekhov play which has been tidied up by Michael Frayn’, says Michael Frayn. ‘It’s basically a farcical situation. A man with four women attracted to him in one way or another, who finds it extremely difficult to resist them.’ Don’t worry though: ‘all the women in the play are strong characters’. Not entirely true. One of the only farcical elements of the play is the reduction of women into archetypes. The sharp heiress, the ugly and shy intellectual, the ethereal blonde, the loyal wife. Some of the male characters are stereotypes too, but the women in this play exist solely as the butts of Platonov’s jokes. The character who fares the worst is Grekova (Jo Herbert), the ‘chemistry student’, the Chekhovian archetype of a woman in love with a man who doesn’t love her back. She is ungainly, awkward and dressed in unflattering, oversized grey garments. Normally when women love men who don’t love them back in Chekhov it’s painful: they aren’t usually main characters, they get given the advice ‘it’ll be easier if you don’t have to see him’; people talk over them, assume their feelings without even consulting them – Howard Davies’ and Jonathan Kent’s direction only serves to intensify the two-dimensional presentation of that quandary.
Justine Mitchell’s upper-class, haughty Anna Petrovna made me long for Nina Sosanya’s warmer version of the character in the Young Chekhov trilogy. Anna Petrovna is the main character of this play, but not the title character. Frayn’s justification for his effusive title is that ‘Anna Petrovna talks about it being ‘a month smeared with wild honey’, which I think suggests both the feel of summer and the very strong erotic charge of the plays. It’s an astonishingly erotic play and sex is at the heart of everything.’ There is no ‘erotic charge’ in any of the acting in this production. It’s just a group of white people pretending to act in a Chekhov play. The only summery thing about it is when the actors tell the audience that it’s summer, even though all the women are wearing corsets and three layers of shawls.
Farce is better suited to west end theatres where you’re sat so far back you can’t see the actors’ faces. In the intimate environment of the Hampstead Theatre you can see the actors thinking about how they’re going to move from A to B to C. Besides, only a few moments were properly farcical. Some of the performance techniques we associate with farce (mostly just the rehearsed blocking) are present but it feels like a copout. It’s like a Noel Coward play: half farce, half drama. If you’re going to do a farce you might as well bite the bullet and give it a hundred percent, Comedy About a Bank Robbery-style. The reason why I don’t particularly like farce as a genre is because it’s always so slapstick and over-rehearsed. It alienates itself from serious dramas which makes the audience cry as well as laugh. Some people like that, and that’s ok. But I’m not sure serious drama and farce are that compatible. When you try to blend them into one you inevitably end up privileging one over the other.
When a character committing suicide is the climax of the most farcical scene in the play, you have a problem. It’s not that you can’t joke about suicide, it’s just that you should be careful doing it. Davies/Kent doesn’t turn Platonov’s suicide on the rickety plastic train tracks into a joke, but instead attempts to suddenly remove the farcical elements and turn Platonov’s death into a poignant moment (if it was meant to be black farce then no one was laughing). The production doesn’t pull off this sudden change in tone at all: the ending feels disjointed, like The Seagull meets One Man Two Guvnors. If I pay money to see a farce, I’d expect the play to end if not with a funny climactic comedy sequence, at least with a joke. It’s hard to make suicide funny in a tasteful way, but part of me wishes they had found a way to make Platonov’s suicide a joke. It’s impossible to take it seriously: throughout the play he’s a misogynist bully. The only reason (in this production) he commits suicide is because he’s got so many women in love with him he just can’t be bothered anymore. There was nothing poignant about Geoffrey Streatfeild’s Platonov dying. I wish he had died earlier on the play so the female characters could have got some time on stage without him talking over them.
The more Chekhov productions I see after Icke’s Vanya (my first experience with Chekhov) the more I appreciate what Icke did with the play, which at the time struck me as significantly less revolutionary than his Oresteia. He may not have rewritten the female characters as drastically as in Oresteia, and like Grekova, his Sonya wears baggy, oversized clothes, which is apparently the only way to convey that a female character isn’t comfortable with her appearance. But Icke’s Vanya is a reminder of how much more real Chekhov feels without the long Russian names that English audiences don’t understand the meanings of, how much closer to real life it can feel.
This attempt at a farce is bland in every aspect, from the set to the costumes to the acting. The real root of the problem, though, lies in this half-hearted attempt at drawing the farcical elements out of Chekhov’s first play. Frayn can write a good farce: look at Noises Off. Wild Honey, however, has none of the same sharp wit or riotous humour.
My favourite (or least worst) line: ‘Osip is our local horsethief.’
Frayn quotes from ‘The Will Mortimer Interview: Michael Frayn’ in the Wild Honey programme.