Anton Chekhov’s “Ward No. 6” at The Lion And Unicorn Pub Theatre in Camden, a Theatre Collection production, adapted by Victor Sobchak, directed by Victor Sobchak and Chris Diacopoulos.
The first thing to take in is the stage set, which is held very minimalistic, displaying a mental facility and, in my opinion, it doesn’t need any major decorations. There is only one black curtain hanging from the ceiling covering the backstage door, creating the impression of a second room and a table at the front, symbolising the doctor’s room.
The costumes are predominantly made with white colours, contrasting very well with the black stage walls and floor. The inmates are all wearing different types of white or light grey clothes, categorising them into different classes. The doctors are wearing doctor’s robes on top of classy costumes, and the two wards are wearing plain clothes.
I knew a few members of the cast personally and many of the cast I saw for the first time (and met and talked to after the play), which made the experience even more interesting. I went to see this play without having read anything about the story beforehand or any synopsis on purpose, as I wanted to see the director’s and actors’ interpretations without any prejudices. I knew what it was about roughly, but didn’t know any details and I wanted the play to have that special effect of surprise on me. And it worked.
The play is set in a mental hospital and confronts complex, ambiguous and often extreme emotions, both of the inmates and the guards and doctors. It has quite a big cast, featuring thirteen actors in total - the two doctors Ragin (Timothy Weston) and Khobotoff (Liliya Ward), the Princess (Savanagh Hartwell), Michael, doctor Ragin’s friend (Joel Smith), the two guards Katya (Wendy Jeffers) and Nikita (Richard Harfst) and the seven inmates Nina (Gerry Skeens), Anton (Chris Diacopoulos), Sonya (Kristina Popova), Ivan (Joshua Richards), Masha (Lulia Filipovscaia), Irina (Kasia Briars) and Olga (Ina Kim).
The opening scene brought an element of surprise with it, when the inmates were rushed onto stage and tried to break free from the guards, shouting and yelling at the people in the front row (luckily I was one of those who were in the front row and could experience that effect on myself) and the guards like butchers chasing pigs, were calming them down. Same type of interaction with the audience took place before the interval, when the two guards chased the inmates away “for a walk” and announced a fifteen minute break.
All of the characters in the play face madness, alienation and frustration before they experience brief, ephemeral moments of insight, often earned at great cost, where they confront the reality of their existence. The play seems to explore the conflict between reality and philosophy, and namely, how people intellectualise reality to justify their own inaction. These two conflicting ideas are personified in the “mad” inmate Ivan and the apathetic Dr. Rabin. Ivan appears to be a realist describing Dr Rabin’s behaviour as laziness and stupefaction. The audience can see that the doctor retreats into the comfort of "rationalisation" to assuage his own conscience. Rabin knows that the hospital is an "immoral institution … prejudicial to the health of the townspeople," but he feels no compassion for its patients or inmates, but rather is curious about studying them. As he says to Ivan, there is "nothing but idle chance" in his being a doctor and in Ivan being an asylum patient. Dr Rabin thus justifies his indifference to others' plight by suggesting that everything is subject to chance.
What I found quite interesting was the meta-communication in the play in form of references to other plays and stories. For example, out of the seven inmates, a few of them were transported by the director to Ward No. 6 from Chekhov’s other works, such as Nina from “The Seagull” for example, displayed by Gerry Skeens. The three girls, “chained” together by a rope, wearing the same grey and white robes and speaking always one after another from right to left reminded me of the “Three Sisters” - Masha, Olga and Irina, а play by Chekhov as well. Coming to think of Chris’ character Anton, I believe that he was displaying Chekhov himself, having the same first name and being a writer, documenting everything that was happening with his fellow inmates and being the only one addressing the audience directly.
An interesting fact I have found out after reading a bit more about Anton Chekhov, inspired by yesterday’s play, is that he also dedicated himself to being a doctor. When he had to give up his practice in 1897 upon urgent medical advice, he experienced it as a great loss. As a medic he often felt unsure and believed that he failed in his duties. This did not change the fact that many patients called upon him for assistance.
Therefore, I believe, that Chekhov most probably was influenced by his own experience as a doctor to write this short story, but also many others exploring the medical profession and the human psyche.
Hence it might be, that doctors appear as the main character or one of the main characters in many of Chekhov's stories as well as in various plays. Although Chekhov undoubtedly will have incorporated his own experiences into his works, he did not give a picture of his own medical activities in the doctors he portrayed. A large number of the doctors he describes are depressed, nervous or irritable, such as the main character in this play, Dr Rabin, who at the end, is himself ultimately admitted to the ward for lunatics whom he has long neglected and whose suffering he has equally long ignored. This play’s biggest irony is that this conversion occurs within an asylum that the protagonist had held to be permissible, on the grounds that it was provided for by chance.
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Photo credits: Natalia Kolosova