play twenty seven: cleansed


Author: Sarah Kane

Published: 1998

Synopsis: this is the first Kane that I have read and I find it difficult to articulate the explosion of images that it created within me. I’m going to fall back upon Mark Ravenhill’s fantastic Guardian article about his relationship with her as a writer, in which he said the following about Cleansed.

“[It] had been triggered in Kane’s imagination after reading Roland Barthes’s line that “being in love was like being in Auschwitz”. She had found his comparison morally repugnant but discovered that it stayed with her, and decided to write a play that explored her reactions to the idea. Cleansed draws a group of characters – a twin brother and sister, a gay couple, a peepshow dancer – into a concentration camp, overseen by the figure of Tinker, who is part Prospero, part Nazi commandant.”

I will note, though, that because of my understanding of Kane’s life I presumed that the framework was a psychiatric institution and that Tinker was the sadistic head doctor. I guess the beauty of theatre is that both of these understandings can rub shoulders comfortably.

What moved me: I have never read anything like this. I’ve never encountered a work that makes the idea of taboo seem superficial and unimportant. I’ve never read a text in which its theatricality exists on such a challenging scale: make a field of daffodils appear, or a giant sunflower; perform backyard transsexual surgery; have an army of rats carry human limbs offstage. What a dark dream to have to deliver.

play twenty six: the cherry orchard

Chekhov would die a year after the production of his final play.
Chekhov would die a year after the production of his final play.

Author: Anton Chekhov Published: 1903 Translator: Elisaveta Fen Synopsis: The lovelorn, bankrupt Liubov Andryeevna returns from Paris to settle the debts on her provincial estate. Its widely celebrated cherry orchard carries the ghost of her family and she struggles to reconcile the weight of these memories with her reckless refusal to take financial responsibility for herself. Her daughters Ania and Varia, her brother Gayev, and her long-faithful servant Feers are caught in the tidal wave of change that is sweeping past their matriarch as the local peasant son-cum-millionaire Lopakhin threatens their beloved home. What moved me: now at the fifth and final of Chekhov’s major works it is clear that this is his most consummate piece of craftsmanship. Every character has the depth of a well and, as in life, we are only given a glance into it as they come into our field of view, before they pass on and escape us. The complaint of boredom, which is the bread on which Chekhov’s work is buttered, is surprisingly absent here. There is too much immediately at stake for these characters to be bored, and the flurry with which they pass through their scenes made me forget myself. What moved me most, though, was a sound. In the final moment, the forgotten Feers, the emblem of servitude in a historical moment that was moving towards the utter rejection of inequality, lies down to die to the far-off sound of an axe chopping into a cherry tree. It produced a stunned, quiet pain that still sits with me hours after I’d finished reading.

play twenty five: three sisters

The 2010 Off-Broadway production.
The 2010 Off-Broadway production.

Author: Anton Chekhov

Published: 1901

Translator: Elisaveta Fen

Synopsis: Three sisters – Olga, Masha, and Irena – live with their brother Andrei in a provincial Russian town since their move from Moscow by their father eleven years ago. The locally-stationed battalion of soldiers is the fodder for the love affairs that gradually unfold. The sisters eke out their existence to support their dissolute gambler of a brother and his insufferable wife Natasha, and gradually let go of their dream to return home.

What moved me: this is perhaps the saddest of Chekhov’s plays, if only for the initial presence of hope that is missing in his other work. In the others there is an enduring optimism for future generations to live better than those currently suffering, but here the deep-seated longing to return to Moscow belies an idealism, a belief that things could be perfect now, that is gradually worn away like old costume jewellery.

As was seeded in Ivanov, Chekhov’s control of entry and exit in group scenes, and of the dynamics within the group, is masterful. Act One has fifteen people at any one time onstage and his ability to bind them together with elastic rope such that any one exit/entrance effects a shift in the air is breathtaking.

Also, Natasha. Fuck. What a heinous creature. I’ve never read a play that has made my jaw drop in shock, but she made it happen.

play twenty three: the seagull

Kristin Scott Thomas as Irena Nikolayevna Arkadina. Perfect.
Kristin Scott Thomas as Irena Nikolayevna Arkadina. Perfect.

Author: Anton Chekhov

Published: 1896

Translator: Elisaveta Fen

Synopsis: Kostia and his sweetheart Nina put on a show for the local families by the lake at his Uncle Sorin’s estate. Kostia is determined to find a new art form and to impress both his histrionic mother, the famous actress Irina Arkadina, and her follower Trigorin, a famous writer. The failure of his work pulls a thread that leads to the gradual unravelling of his life.

What moved me: I’m not sure whether it was because Ivanov was written in a fortnight, or whether it was because Checkhov was 27 and it wasn’t until he was 36 when The Seagull was first produced (I don’t even know if this really does make any difference at all) but the development between these two works is like Polyxena’s shooting star wiped across the sky. Between these two plays irritation has been replaced by devastation. Everything has a purpose. Kostia’s botched suicide attempt is emblematic of every character’s aborted desire and false hope. The way in which the seagull reconnects moments in time across years of turmoil that are lived offstage is painful in its simplicity. And that ending. Fuck.

Also, it is interesting to note what has carried across into this work: the presence of a doctor as a key character, and the presence of Hamlet (Ivanov was sickened by his likeness to him; the players in The Seagull cannot help but quote him) and the work of Gogol as key weaves in the play-fabric.

play twenty two: ivanov

Chekhov. What a babe.
Chekhov. What a babe.

Writer: Anton Chekhov

Published: 1887

Suggested by: with this new week comes our first suggestion for the play-a-day club. Colin Ho, Amy Satchell, and Chris Hay suggested a chronological reading of Chekhov’s major works (Ivanov, The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard) in order to track the development of Chekhov as an artist (as well as of naturalism as a form).

Synopsis: Estate-holder Nikolai Ivanov, a once vital man now wasted by depression, slowly infects the network of relationships in which he is enmeshed with his ennui.

What moved me:  Both Chekhov’s protagonist and the repetitive content of most of the work’s dialogue – everyone is bored, always bored and waiting for diversion – is deeply frustrating and so perhaps perfectly provokes the same dissipation in the spectator that is being felt onstage.

His inexplicable falling out of love with his consumptive Jewish wife Sarah (leaving aside the mildly disturbing seam of antisemitism that runs throughout the work) is a prime example.

IVANOV: […] Aniuta is a remarkable, an extraordinary woman. She changed her religion for my sake, left her father and mother, gave up her money, and if I’d asked for a hundred more sacrifices, she would have made them without blinking an eyelid. As for me – well, there’s nothing remarkable about me, and I’ve sacrificed nothing. However, it’s a long story…The gist of the matter, my dear Doctor, is that…[hesitates] that, to put it briefly, I was passionately in love with her when I got married and I swore I’d love her for ever, but…Well, five years have passed, and she still loves me, but I…[Makes a helpless gesture with his hands.] Here you are, telling me that she’s soon going to die, and I don’t feel any love or pity but just a sort of indifference and lassitude….To anyone looking at me it must seem dreadful; I don’t understand myself what’s happening to me….

The seed of brilliance in this work is how deftly Chekhov handles crowded rooms – keeping each thread separate and yet entangled. I’m sure this will develop over the next few plays.