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Friday, July 20, 2012

PLATONOV (1971)

Anton Chekhov’s early play exists in various performing editions since the big, messy original is impossibly long & overwritten. Yet, it keeps showing up in one form or another (WILD HONEY and AN UNFINISHED PIECE FOR PLAYER PIANO are two alternate versions) because it lets us see Chekhov in chrysalis. Not only his typical Russian characters, the declining aristos & the cash-and-carry nouveau, but all the petty tiffs, vanities & stupidities that can turn on a dime (er . . . kopek) from satire to tragedy. Platonov is a married teacher who drifts thru various levels of society, drinking his way past a series of lovestruck ladies. He doesn’t exactly pursue, but it’s too much bother not to go along. With so much flesh around, society to navigate, social interruptions, vodka to drink & hunting weapons about, something’s gotta give. Rex Harrison had an unexpected hit with this very British version in the early ‘60s (it sometimes feels like Shaw’s MISALLIANCE) and taped it ten years later as a BBC Play of the Month. It doesn’t really come off, something lost between stage & the screen, and technically it’s tough to get a workable sound level with all the actors dropping their voices for personal confidences. (Subtitles help.) But it’s worth a bit of effort. Harrison was already twenty years too old when he first did the role and is now thirty years off. Yet, rather than hurt his perf, it brings out the comic absurdity of the situations, making Chekhov’s quick turn at the end both jarring & right. But the play, in just about any form, works best as foreshadow to later masterpieces.

DOUBLE-BILL: You can see this basic idea working its way thru Michael Winner’s disappointing film of Alan Ayckbourne’s A CHORUS OF DISAPPROVAL/’89. Jeremy Irons is hilariously ambivalent about his allure as a sort of modern Platonov character, fending off women at an amateur theatrical club. And Anthony Hopkins is particularly good, and truly Chekovian, in a sort of sub-Uncle Vanya role, a part he played in his self-directed misfire AUGUST/’96.

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