The performance “Love in a Nutshell” by Xameleon Theatre at the Cockpit Theatre, Marylebone, is one of the most noteworthy Russian productions in London during the current season. While based on Anton Chekhov’s short stories, it creates its own logic and plot through the way the stories are connected, as we can see Chekhov on the stage narrating his stories and then transforming himself into some of his characters.
Vadim Bogdanov and Oleg Sidorchik perform Chekhov at different stages of his life - as a younger and as an older man. Both of them are often present as narrators on stage in various parts of the performance: they observe the other characters, and their reactions to their misfortunes give a new dimension to the whole production. The director clearly uses a combination of Brecht’s epic theatre and his alienating techniques with the tradition of Russian psychological theatre, when the actors delve deeply into their characters.
The audience is seated around three sides of the stage, which is covered with a pale purple fabric that is transformed into water when the actors create waves with it and swim in it, as if in the fabric of their own lives. It also washes away one story with its waves before giving way to another.
The director Dmitry Turchaninov has staged a performance in which the actors themselves create the environment for their acting and produce many of the sound effects such as an echo, pebbles hitting the water, the croaking of frogs or the buzzing of mosquitoes (lighting and sound director - George Galkin). Turchaninov also adds a great deal of physical theatre to his production when the actors swim very realistically through the fabric or balance on the edge of the imaginary water.
The director himself performs several characters in his production, demonstrating the fine skills of the traditional Russian acting school. All of his characters at first look rather thoughtful, with sad and gentle eyes, but gradually we can see hidden or apparent humour in the way they walk or talk. Turchaninov softly adds a different colour to each of his characters, making them all distinct from each other.
The actors of the international cast have all been taught their craft at different acting schools - from the Moscow Arts Theatre to East 15 - so it is no wonder that they demonstrate various acting styles, but they are all united by the grotesque and the humour of Chekhov’s timeless stories. Alexey Averkin plays the servant Panteley in “Chase Two Rabbits" with self-irony and discerning humour. He acts in the same natural and versatile manner as the more mature Oleg Sidorchik, who shines throughout the performance.
In the next story, “Romance with a Double Bass”, Sidorchik portrays the musician Smychkov, who goes for a swim and is left without his clothes and meets a lady - Princess Babulova (Maria Blatstein) - in the same predicament. The director shows the vulnerability of human bodies and souls, as the two half-naked people talk, separated by the case of a double bass, and subtle emotions are aroused during their conversation.
Maria Blatstein plays Princess Babulova with abstruse humour, and she also shows her lyrical gift, as in the story “A Joke", in which her Nadezhda Petrovna cannot fathom where the words “I love you” come from. “Was it really the wind who said it? I don't want it to have been the wind,” she pronounces defencelessly, with her transparent desire to be loved. But in another story, “The Daughter of Albion”, the same actress makes us laugh with her almost eccentric portrayal of an Englishwoman.
We can see how the flesh of the performance is created from simple elements. In the second part the river is replaced by ice (another piece of fabric) and white bags represent snow drifts or pillows, depending upon the story. In “The Witch” they form the room of the sexton Savely Gykin (Oleg Sidorchik) and his wife, performed by Irina Kara, who is the true gem of this production. Just a few minutes previously the audience has been in fits of laughter at her grotesque portrayal of the vodka-swigging matchmaker Lubov Grigorievna in “Happy Ending”, but now we see a subtle and profound character, built on the elusive expressions in the actress’s eyes and her delicate reactions. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Kara performs not even a person, but a metaphor of the fate of an unhappy female with her eternal yearning for love.
Chekhov’s witty depiction of true human nature comes to its climax in the final story, “The Proposal”. Vlada Lemeshevska gives her Natalya Stepanovna a seriously steely character as she argues with her prospective groom. Lemeshevska portrays several young ladies in the production and, despite their angelic and gentle appearances, all of them seem to be very strong-willed, just like her earlier Suzanna in “The Marriage of Figaro”. This has to be the individual style of this young actress, who is also the producer and artistic director of Xameleon Theatre. Vadim Bogdanov as the hapless groom is funny and pitiful in his inability to stop arguing. Bogdanov manages to create completely different characters throughout the performance and he possesses the charisma and fluency similar to that of the famous Russian actor Oleg Menshikov.
“Love in a Nutcase”, although performed in Russian with English subtitles, touches the English audience as well as the Russian in that people can easily relate to the emotions and characters portrayed. This is a fine adaptation of timeless Russian classic stories with intelligent directing and versatile acting.