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Review of Sunstroke by Chekhov/ Bunin Belka Productions

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on Monday, 09 September 2013

Sunstroke inspired by Chekhov’s The Lady with the Dog and Ivan Bunin’s Sunstroke.

August 28th to September 21st 2013.

The Platform Theatre, King's Cross, , Granary Building, 1 Granary Square (off Goods Way), King's Cross, London N1C 4AA

Web site http://www.belkaproductions.co.uk/productions/Telephone  Box Office020 8123 1604

3 stars

Sunstroke ROSY BENJAMIN and STEPHEN PUCCI


Figure 1. Rosy Benjamin and Stephen Pucci are Chekov’s lovers, Anna and Dmitri.

Belka Productions are making a name for themselves in bringing Russian theatre to the British stage - following A Warsaw Melody at the Arcola last year - this new outing is an experimental piece which chooses two prose stories that Russian scholars have linked and then dramatizes them in an intriguing, inventive and intertwined performance. The platform theatre at King’s Cross is a relatively new space part of the Granary Building development by St Martin’s – comprising a studio theatre (which Sunburn utilised) and a larger auditorium.

Chekhov’s The Lady with the Dog (1899) is a well-known prose piece about a 40 something man having a passionate, devastating and transformative affair with a much younger, married woman in the seaside capital of Yalta. In contrast, Sunstroke (1927) is less well known in Britain, though as a story it a parallels and echoes Chekhov’s masterpiece and it is also about a man having a summer affair with a beautiful, but unhappy stranger – this time abroad a steamer - though as befits its post-revolutionary origins it is all round a bleaker, more painful take on the subject, though it dwells on the transitory momentary pleasure of his grand passion.

Belka have chosen a traverse staging, as well as a filmic, poetic multi-media approach using projected images and music and essentially broken the two stories down into sections, which echo one another and are played alternately. The action of the stories is interspersed with some beguiling dancing by Masumi Saito, set to mostly traditional Japanese music, which evokes the way that turn of the century Russian’s perceived the exotic sensuality of the east, epitomised in the Sydney Jones opera, the Geisha, that Anna and Dmitri see in section III of The Lady with the Dog.  (The Geisha is the story of an engaged man who nevertheless falls in love with a Geisha. It is at the opera where Dmitri and Anna are first reunited after he leaves Moscow to search for her in the unnamed town where she lives.)

The approach that director Oleg Mirochnikovic is elegant, poetic and often languorous – redolent of the heat of the southern summer with many of the passages spoken directly to the audience as if first person narration – mainly by the men. There is some nice and simple design work from Agnes Treplin. Rosy Benjamin and Stephen Pucci are Chekov’s lovers, Anna and Dmitri. I felt that the age gap in the story wasn’t perhaps as clear as it should be: Dmitri is a greying, womaniser in his 40s who finds love for the first time with the much younger, unhappily married Anna. I also didn’t feel there was much passion between Benjamin and Pucci and didn’t feel much of the sense of their love as an irresistible force, although Pucci gave a good impression of man gripped by the power of obsession, after believing he can easily forget a woman who is just another conquest. Part of the problem here was less the acting than that the heavily stylised movement and interrupted structure of the piece, especially the dancer, which tended to slow down the love stroies. Just when you started to become engaged by them the story swapped to Oliver King’s Lieutenant and Katia Elizarova’s Woman or the dancer.

sunstrokeproduciton katiaeliarova and oliver king

Figure 2. Oliver King’s Lieutenant and Katia Elizarova’s Woman

King’s Lieutenant was an effectively hapless young man while international model Elizarova’s beautiful stranger ( Elizarova was making her stage debut), was a suitably beautiful but fantastic figure of a woman. Bunin’s story is more slender and obsessive than Chekhov’s – the woman is more a figure of fantasy and he never learns her name - and this meant there was more use of film projection and less words , though it also meant the second story seemed to be over too quickly in the second act.

Sunstroke MasumiSaito

Figure 3. Masumi Saito, the dancer.

Personally I’d have taken each story separately and trusted to the audience to find connections rather than intertwining them and I’d have saved the Japanese element for perhaps the final performance of watching the opera. I also do wonder if part of the problem comes from trying to stage these stories as two person plays as they are less dramatic than studies in how men deal with the surprizing power of love and obsession.

In the end it is brave and fascinating attempt and all concerned deserve much credit -  if not altogether successful - it still tells us something about the difficulty of adapting these stories and their dependence on the medium in which they were originally written
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