An empty stage, sliced diagonally in half by dolly tracks running from downstage right to upstage left; on those tracks, a grand piano on a cart, equipped with a microphone for the player. The pianist enters, sits at the piano, and starts a tentative vocal improv. Lights off. The cast shuffle on. Lights up. Actors stand distributed across the stage, motionless, and stare out into the auditorium. They keep standing, staring, in silence. Luk Pervecal’s version of Chekhov’s Platonov, a production of the Belgian NT Gent I saw at the Thalia Theater in Hamburg, has begun.

Chekhov’s sprawling, ridiculously long first play, discovered after his death, is about an aristocratic intellectual who has crashlanded into a life as a provincial school teacher and finds himself surrounded by a baffling number of women for whom he becomes an unlikely object of desire. The play is populated by the usual array of Chekhovian characters, including the inevitable country doctor, all stranded in a place where they don’t belong and don’t want to stay, but which they don’t have the means or the energy to leave. Perceval has crafted a show from this material that runs a mere 100 minutes, a sustained meditation on desire, loneliness, and despair. Dramaturgically, the play has a retrospective quality (it stages its election of scenes from the play from a perspective more or less near the end Chekhov’s text), but it also feels like a preview of all that was yet to come in the playwright’s career – there are lines about labour and calloused hands that sound like they’re lifted from Uncle Vanya.

Perceval establishes his aesthetic parameters immediately, and he stays true to them: this is an enormously austere and spare piece of theatre in every way, economical and deliberate in its use of gesture, of language, of space. If the actors have any kind of performative freedom, it is entirely limited to the individual: apart from Platonov, only Maria (the youngest of the infatuated women) really ever gets to move with any freedom. Everyone else is mostly planted where they stand – some of them shift between scenes or scenic units, but only from set position to set position. Movement here is a means of arriving at new static places, not an end in itself. Platonov wanders relatively freely between these immobile human figures, but even he rarely interacts with them – when he bids farewell to them at the very end of the play, he addresses them sideways, and that is the most direct form of interaction Perceval allows (with the signal exception of an intense kiss between Platonov and Anna Petrovna). For the last half hour or so, everyone but Maria is lined up at the edge of the stage, staring straight ahead, speaking out into the audience; when one character raises a shotgun threatening to kill Platonov, he points it not at him, but above our heads – as if the bullet might ricochet off the audience to hit its target.

You wouldn’t know it from the trailer or the production stills, but alienation is a major formal theme in this Platonov: alienation of characters from each other, of the actors from each other’s bodies, of the actors from the space, of the actors from the language even. Despite the empty stage and a very restrained use of lighting, this is an extremely artificial production. Lines get repeated (especially jokes, endlessly); dialogue almost always is triangulated via the auditorium; movements are mechanical, repetitive, frequently frozen in mid-gesture. And yet, it’s also a production that operates at a very high level of emotional intensity: each and every figure on stage is like an isolated pressure cooker, increasingly tense, increasingly under barely sustained stress as the evening develops. Sasha, Platonov’s neglected wife, holds the same off-kilter stance for at least half an hour; Sofia slowly becomes a complete wreck, makeup smeared across her twisted, tear-streaked features; Sergei, her unloved, pathetic husband, digs his arms deep into the legs of his already absurd high-waisted trousers, as if trying to disappear into the ground, contorted into a grotesque figure of shame and inhibition; Nicolai Triletski, the greasy, brutally jolly country doctor and drunkard, stands for a long while with his hand inside his fly, swaying.

What Perceval seems after is a kind of clinical examination of emotional states. He isolates his actors and their bodies in space, cut off from the physical interaction that normally forms an integral part of human social life as well as of stage acting (not touch as such, but simply the relative positions of bodies in space – the fact that no two bodies normally can exist in a room without situating themselves somehow vis-à-vis each other). And then, despite this isolation, he makes them experience – or at least display – emotional states that are the result of their relationships with other people, or, perhaps more tellingly, their inability to achieve or maintain such relationships. “States” is perhaps not the right word, though, suggesting as it does an absence of development: emotional responses may be closer to the mark, slow-motion train-wrecks, gradually intensifying traumatic experiences that find only the most retrained physical outlet, and no spatial expression whatsoever. Locked in place, these characters slowly, slowly spin out of control.

The piano moves equally slowly from its original position downstage right to the end of the tracks upstage left – so slowly that its movement doesn’t register. Every time you look it has changed position, but it hasn’t really moved. However, from that immobile travelling instrument, the strangest sounds emerge, as Jens Thomas howls, screeches, wails, bellows into his microphone, alternately tinkles and pounds the keyboard, and frequently switches into vocal registers at a far remove from the normal human voice – Thomas is an accomplished overtone singer. The intensity, the sheer sonic power, of that soundtrack corresponds to the explosive emotional energy barely contained by the actors’ alienated bodies, but it, too, is alienated: electronically amplified, produced by a relatively unanimated musician, playing on the slowest train in the world, the sound washes over the characters locked in place, who in turn are completely unaffected by its acoustic force.

In the end, Platonov uses his liberty to roam to take the gun from Ossip’s hands and move upstage, to point the barrel at his own face. In Chekhov, it’s Sonya who shoots him; here, he clearly is the only character who has the kind of agency necessary for an action as decisive as killing. But he doesn’t pull the trigger. Before he can, the lights snap off.

I don’t know how representative Perceval’s production is of Benelux theatre. The primary focus of his theatrical work has been in Germany for a long time, and he has a long-term association with the Thalia Theater. But let me for a moment treat this Platonov as a typical piece of Dutch/Flemish performance just for the sake of the argument. This is certainly nothing like what a mainstream Chekhov would look like in English – even for fringe production, this would be a fairly radical experiment. But in its total commitment to a particular experimental setup, the production also didn’t feel like most mainstream German theatre. In fact, I was reminded of other shows directed by Dutch or Dutch-educated directors I’ve seen in Germany: Johan Simons’ Uncle Vanya at the Munich Kammerspiele two years ago, for instance, in which spatial limitation was also a major device; or Susanne Kennedy’s recent productions at the Kammerspiele, which likewise derived much of their power from placing strict limits on what the actors could do (even taking language away from them altogether). For all its intensity and rigour, Perceval’s Platonov was one of the least playful shows I’ve seen on a German stage: a necessary correlative of its strictly enforced aesthetic paradigm was that actors could only play on their own, not with each other. To the extent that there was any kind of interplay, any kind of bouncing off one another’s energy, inventiveness, in-the-moment ideas, and so on, that interplay could only happen in a sort of mediated fashion, indirectly. And I’m not sure there was much of that either.

Perceval’s Gent Platonov certainly is strikingly different from the version of the play he staged at the Schaubühne in 2006, a show he documented on DVD: equally experimental in many ways, that earlier production relied much more on actorly interplay and used a far less clinical aesthetic – assuming Perceval’s film accurately represents what the production was about. Spatially, that show was a very different beast as well, using a stage that filled two of the Schaubühne’s theatres (Saal B and C) and formed an enormous oval criss-crossed by train tracks (sans piano). As one critic noted back then, it was obvious that the actors enjoyed making the best use of that enormous playing field — although in that production, too, stasis governed the first section of the play, with characters dotted all over the stage and not interacting physically at first. As the show went on, though, that approach, so rigorously maintained in the NT Gent version, was abandoned. Is this difference in the reliance on actorly play a general distinction between German and Benelux theatrical experiment? I have no idea. But wouldn’t it be interesting if it were?

“Clinical” would be my one-word summary of the NT Gent production. It feels a bit like watching a set of subjects in an experiment, locked in pressure chambers, or slowly heating glass cages – or like an array of Gremlins in isolated microwaves. We don’t get to see them pop, but even if we did, they’d remain behind their glass walls: we can see their pain, we can even hear their screams, but they’re kept at a safe distance, a clinical distance, from us and from each other. As powerful, even overwhelming, as this show is, it also examines its subjects under a remarkably cold light.

Leave a Reply