Sunstroke inaugurates the new Platform Theatre studio with a feast for the eyes, but falls short of feeding the mind.
Director Oleg Mirochnikov’s adaptation weaves together two tales of forbidden romance from short stories by Anton Chekhov and Ivan Bunin. The romanticism of a summer on the Russian Riviera is beautifully captured in billowing costumes by Agnes Treplin and a sand floor atmospherically lit by Howard Hudson, brushing up against the present day with evocative projections from Simon Eves onto Treplin’s sleek, modern set. Great attention has been paid to design and beauty in this production, perhaps to the exclusion of an engaging psychological journey.
The evening begins, surprisingly, with a dancer in traditional Japanese dress producing a bottle of perfume from a wicker basket. She returns throughout the evening with various props, (including a watermelon, for reasons lost to a contemporary London audience) and dances the unbridled emotions of the play’s lovers. At last in the second act, a tenuous connection from the Chekhov story brings the dancer into the same world as the rest of the characters. Masumi Saito’s dance gives beautiful expression to the otherwise repressed passion of the two pairs of lovers, and the idea pays off visually, if not conceptually.
The adaptation suffers from over-faithfulness to the original stories, both in its use of long narrative monologues snatched verbatim from the Chekhov and Bunin texts and in the resulting one-sidedness of these love affairs. In Dmitri’s (Stephen Pucci) narration, the women are condemned as members of “the lower breed” and never allowed to defend or explain themselves to the audience as the men do. Even when Dmitri’s lover Anna (Rosy Benjamin) gets a rare chance to speak, she echoes his appellation of “pathetic” and bemoans, yes, pathetically, “How can I justify myself? I am a bad, despicable woman…whom everyone has the right to despise.” An understanding of the social mores of 1899 could help an audience to forgive this tearful self-loathing, if the moment were a note of complexity in a symphonic character. Alas, Anna is allowed no countermelody beyond Dmitri’s account of her attractiveness.
There is a glimmer of hope in her counterpart, known only as The Woman (Katia Elizarova) – the character herself wishes to remain anonymous, possibly so her lover cannot track her down after she has decided to leave. After her brief affair with the Lieutenant (Oliver King), he remarks in surprise, “You’re not the least bit awkward or ashamed,” to which she blithely replies, “Should I be?” The Sunstroke couple, from a story published in 1927 (28 years after The Lady With The Dog was written), seems to have a slightly more enlightened view of love, marriage, and gender relations. That glimmer of hope is extinguished moments later, however, when The Woman proudly relates her father’s aspirations for his daughter: arms a little longer than usual, a slender form, calves just so, and most importantly, “a lightness of breath.” She pulls her lover to her breast and breathes gently, beaming “I have it!” as she demonstrates this lofty accomplishment. In this moment, we remember that Sunstroke marks Elizarova’s first foray into acting from modelling, and this presentational role seems a particularly fitting one for the transition. She is beautiful and charming, which unfortunately is all the role calls for.
The Woman, at least, does get to deliver a few interesting lines that support the conceptual framework of the piece, reading from the Lieutenant’s book: “Perhaps the feelings we experience when we are in love represent a normal state, being in love shows a person who he should be.” If these four melancholy and frustrated archetypes are the proof of this sentiment, we can only hope Chekhov’s assertion is not true.
Director Oleg Mirochnikov’s programme notes profess a desire to let the audience decide, “What is love? A dream, a sunstroke, languor of spirit, a pain, or a blessing?” But in these stories, it seems to be something men do to women for no better reason than their chance proximity, with unpleasant results.