All My Sons; Chekhov in Hell

ARTS, Theatre & Performing Arts

Written by Arthur Miller; Directed by Susan Wilson
Circa Theatre | June 2-July 7

All My Sons opens in the midst of a storm, and we witness Kate Keller (Emma Kinane) staring in grief at a tree that has blown down in her yard. This tree is revealed to be her youngest son’s memorial, and it is his fate that lies at the centre of this wonderful play. Kate is unwilling, or unable, to confront the possibility that her son has died in WWII. Her older son, Chris Keller (Richard Dey), has survived the war and has invited “Larry’s girl,” Ann Deever (Jessica Robinson), to their home to ask for her hand in marriage.

Meanwhile patriarch, Joe Keller (Jeffrey Thomas), has converted his military supplies factory into electrical goods having escaped prosecution for selling cracked cylinder heads to the military that resulted in the death of 21 soldiers. Sent to prison instead was his business partner, Steve Deever, the father of Ann.

And so, all the ingredients are in place for a sizzling domestic drama. Secrets, lies, and revelations are rife. The play moves towards its tragically inevitable ending with ease.

The set and lighting play with color saturation; vibrant fake grass and the iconic white washed veranda combines with bright pink, blue and orange lighting, and this contrasts with the black walls of the theatre and black poplar trees that loom into the family’s front yard. Curiously the underside of the house is lit, creating the illusion of a floating house. Unfortunately these stylistic decisions are, to my mind, unnecessary. Music and sound design (Gareth Hobbs) is wonderfully evocative, but underscoring to the more dramatic monologues is doubly percussive.

Questions around corporate greed, profit at all costs, guilt and grief are eerily relevant. There is a great value in reviving those great American plays that expose our inherent selfishness, but it is with a poignant sadness that they still have to be asked.

*   *   *

Written by Dan Rebellato; Directed by Eleanor Bishop
Circa Theatre | May 12-June 9

Anton Chekhov, the man who helped revolutionize how we view real life on stage, has woken up from a coma in 2000s London, and he is not impressed. After a romanticized life in Russia, and seventy years in a coma, waking up in an NHS hospital isn’t the heaven Chekhov deserves. Instead, he’s met by his great-great niece who remarks “he’s nice, looks like he knows stuff, knows you better than you do,” but it is not long until he casts off his hospital gown and wanders off.

Chekhov (played by Jason Whyte) enters a world that is totally foreign to his. Rebellato has presented a London where “plasma screens are cheaper than windows.” Presented as a series of chance encounters, Chekhov meanders around the city and meets verbose Heston Blumenthal-style chefs, hypersexual catwalk models exposing the boundaries of fashion, and Trinny and Susannah-esque office fung shui experts.

A particularly memorable encounter sees Chekhov receiving a pitch for a season of ‘Helping Hands’, a BBC TV show that follows people around capturing the compromises they make. As the madcap producer’s façade cracks, we get a glimpse of sadness underneath. These moments are when the play succeeds best; it sets up something to be hilariously flawed and then reveals a plausible and gut wrenching explanation.

While Chekhov continues his wandering, his niece continues looking for him and Russian baddies start closing in.

The set, a series of white blocks, are incredibly evocative. They could be the blocks of an igloo or compartments in a trendy modern shop. They also act as screens for a series of projections to suggest each location. The constant flashing fragments move at MTV music video speed and work wonders to suggest the overwhelming pace and density of modern life. Key lines are autotuned, put to music, and used with projection to transition between scenes.

The big issue with Chekhov in Hell is that it is two plays in one. On the one hand, it’s a satirical comedy where a disorientated old man is confused by a series of wacky and exaggerated characters. He increasingly descends into sillier and sadder situations until he is desperate for a moment’s peace. On the other, it’s an absurd drama about a menacing human trafficker and Chekhov’s race to find the vulnerable Helena. The actors do an admirable job switching fluidly between both modes, but the play would benefit from choosing what it wants to do.

Either way, Chekhov in Hell is didactic. We are confronted by the worst of the worst of society, our social mores are laid out in front of us, and we are told we are vacuous, empty, pretentious people who Anton Chekhov would rather “have died than see.” Throughout his adventures we are reminded Chekhov is “very easy to talk to.” He spends much of the play looking bemused and bewildered. In fact, he is an observer, a scientist. He searches for a cause, a reason to explain how the present became so detestable. It’s a shame then, that Chekhov in Hell never locates an answer.

Filed under: ARTS, Theatre & Performing Arts


Samuel Phillips is the Wellington theatre editor for The Lumière Reader. When he isn’t reviewing theatre he can be found making theatre with Wellington-based company, Bright Orange Walls, or studying at Victoria University of Wellington.