Atlanta Hatch

When I read about this week’s ADC main, ‘Wild Honey’, Chekhov’s earliest surviving complete play adapted and translated by Michael Frayn, I did not expect it to be funny. Or at least not funny in the way that Maddie Trepanier’s version of ‘Wild Honey’ was funny, which was not even surprising Beckettian tragicomedy, but a comedy which relished the ridiculous and the over-expressed.

I’m not sure exactly how I felt about the humour of this play. There were some stunningly hilarious performances: Rory Russell and Ross McIntyre deserve the highest praise for their performance of drunkard father and son, consistently funny in their irrelevant one-liners and drunken circuitousness, and yet steering clear of the slapstick or the merely silly. Alice Murray showcases a skilled subtlety in her acting as the ambitious paranoid Petrin, revealing a range of facial expressions so perfect for every moment of her scenes. Alice Tyrrell’s comic timing, even in her few appearances, is exquisite.

And yet by the end of the play, I felt that the humour had become not just a momentary dry laugh in the middle of a high-emotion scene, but it had begun to take over; Jesper Eriksson as Platanov seemed to be playing purely for laughs and thus losing some of the most wonderful moments of intimacy and emotional expression: I wasn’t so sure whether I wanted this to be a funny play anymore. It felt like Kay Benson (Sofya), Emily Beck (Sasha) and William Batty (Osip) were acting in a completely different play from the rest of the characters, as they engaged an emotional depth and tone of quietness which was certainly not shared by all.

This is not to criticise Eriksson. His performance as Platanov was charismatic, waistcoated, garrulous, his endless talking coming close to grating but always swinging away again at just the right moment to charm the audience once again. When he first appears Platanov consistently talks over his wife, answering questions directed at her with ‘us’, and yet Trepanier’s and Odette Baber Straw’s fantastically clever staging when he lies his head in his wife’s lap and the two women talk behind his head seemed to show that they are not fazed by his act of masculine imposition. This philosopher is not actually a threat, and it is true that despite all the havoc he wreaks in the play, by the final scenes Eriksson’s Platanov was pathetic in his mania and in his inability to engage emotionally. He is, as Petrin earlier describes him, as a performing bear: ‘you don’t know if he’s going to perform, or maul.’ In the end, he performs and then he collapses as if from the strain of the act.

A particular mention should also go to Inge-Vera Lipsius as Anna Petrovna, the ethereal hostess who frames the whole play. Lipsius certainly grew into the role as the play goes on: the more people arrived at her house, the more she became the figure of authority striding through the problems of life, a queen of the fairies figure almost, admired by anyone who sees her, a figure of a goddess for Osip and so many others. When the focus turned to her own emotions, she was abrupt and certain: ‘I have thought.’ At the end of the first act, Lipsius was framed by light, her white dress catching the spotlight as she spun and danced in the centre of the stage and of everyone’s gaze.

"The acting in the first scene seemed to lack psychological subtlety, but the small, intimate scenes work."

But this play wasn’t perfect. As I see it, there were two main problems. The first comes down to the details. I thought the set could have gone much further: sure, it is exciting to have the wall of the schoolroom descend from above, but the wall itself was a fairly standard representation of a schoolroom, and it lacked, I felt, any sense of coherent aesthetic or specific visual intention. There was no symbolism or detail to draw the audience’s attention. The same can be said of the trees which formed the set for the rest of the play. If a theatrical set is to work, it should either demand its audience’s attention, mesmerise and transfix them, or it should fit so perfectly with the scene that it seems to become one with the lines that are being spoken. The set of ‘Wild Honey’ was neither of these things, seeming to collapse under any scrutiny and adding little to the words and actions of the characters.


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The second problem, in my opinion, was to do with the confidence. The play’s opening was where I felt this most: it was shaky. The singing was not as tight as it could have been, and indeed my general feeling about the music in this play was that it could have been used more powerfully if polished and better shaped. The acting in this first scene seemed to lack psychological subtlety; it was too ‘nice’, too amiable, not dark or complex or nuanced enough. I think this was a problem that the actors faced particularly in the larger scenes, as the later scenes with only two characters were much more effective. In these smaller scenes, it felt like the actors really knew what they were supposed to be feeling or thinking at any given moment, and it was clear that more time had been spent on these rehearsals. For a play which explores different types of relationships and thinks about different kinds of love, though, maybe this is not such a bad problem: it is more important that the small, intimate scenes work (which they do).

‘Wild Honey’ is enjoyably entertaining, considering different modes of loving and of being loved, pitching the characters against Platanov’s charismatic arrogance one after the other to see what comes out. It is a shame that the set was not what it could have been and that at moments the acting seemed to slip beyond the awkwardness demanded by the text and into lines that sounded slightly forced, were ever so slightly mistimed, or revealed unexplored motivations beneath the surface. But it’s a hard play to pull off, and this cast and crew really come together to interpret the Chekhov-Frayn creation.

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