Wild Honey by Anton Chekhov & Michael Frayn, Hampstead Theatre
It’s Chekhov, Jim, but not as we know it – and not just because of the presence of Michael Frayn as co-writer. We are dealing here with early Chekhov, adapted by Frayn from a sprawling and nameless manuscript discovered in a Moscow vault sixteen years after Chekhov’s death. This is Chekhov via Feydeau, Chekhov as writer of farce, albeit a farce with a tragically human heart.
Wild Honey is the story of Platonov (Geoffrey Streatfeild), and the various women who pursue him during one hot summer. Platonov is almost a personification of failed promise. Once a future Byron in Moscow, he’s ended up as a school teacher in a country back-water, married to a wife he doesn’t respect. We’ve all met a Platonov – essentially useless, self-serving and pathetic, but possessing enough charisma that you allow yourself to be charmed anyway. They’re dangerous but enjoyable to be around. But although he hides it, Platonov is horribly aware of his failure. He’s thrown off his axis by the question posed by Sofya, a former girlfriend from his Moscow days: “Why haven’t you done better?” It’s from this one question that events begin to spiral out of control.
There are many recognisable Chekhovisms in Wild Honey – whether the themes of unfulfilled promise (“Why do we never lead the life we have it in us to lead?” is the play’s key question), the dream of escaping from the provinces, or the debt-ridden aristocrats – but all refracted through the unexpected lens of farce. Even as the story gets darker, this is a very funny play, which reminds us of the sheer absurdity of human loves and lusts. It’s a highly effective antidote to the grey and damp British winter, with the gorgeous birch tree-filled set and lighting evoking a longed-for hot summer and its consequent lusts.
I have written elsewhere on this blog (see here and here) about my devotion to the acting talent that is Geoffrey Streatfeild, and he continues to more than justify my (cultural) stalking of him. After last seeing him as the tortured Ivanov at the National, it’s nice to see him display his comedy timing again. He gets a run for his money from Platonov’s quartet of women: Justine Mitchell as the impoverished aristocrat Anna Petrovna, a widow beset with such useless suitors you really can’t blame her for taking the initiative and going after Platonov; Sophie Rundle as Sofya, Jo Herbert as the bluestocking victim of Platonov’s teasing; Rebecca Humphries as his devoted and neglected wife. It’s notable that Platonov does not deserve the devotion of any of these women. In fact, none of the men in the play come out of this very well – they are all weak or otherwise unpleasant.
Wild Honey is at the Hampstead Theatre until 21st January. https://www.hampsteadtheatre.com/whats-on/2016/wild-honey/