Belka Productions: Sunstroke Inspired by Anton Chekhov’s The Lady with the Dog and Ivan Bunin’s Sunstroke 28 August – 21 September 2013 Platform Theatre Tickets £10 – £16
Two chance encounters in the heat of a Russian summer are explored in Belka Productions’ latest play, Sunstroke. Based on Anton Chekhov’s The Lady with the Dog (1899) and Ivan Bunin’s Sunstroke (1927), it follows the course of two extramarital affairs that, casual at first, eventually become much more than either couple ever anticipated. Belka takes the challenging step of staging two stories alongside each other, acted out on either side of a sand-covered stage. On the one is Chekhov’s celebrated story of love on the Russian Riviera. There, Dmitri Gurov watches a lady with a little dog walk the promenade every day, eventually finding an opportunity to meet her. On the other side of the stage we follow the story of Ivan Bunin, the ‘latter-day Chekhov’ who is known as much for being the first Russian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature as for his unusual home life (he lived with his wife and lover). Here, aboard a steamer on the Volga River, a lieutenant meets a young married woman known to him only as the ‘beautiful stranger.’ Intense portrayals of passion and anguish abound in this play, ever questioning the severity and blissfulness of love. I was reminded of a line in one of Chekhov’s letters written shortly before The Lady with the Dog: “Я ничего не делаю, только сплю, ем и приношу жертвы богине любви” (“I do nothing, only sleep, eat and offer up sacrifices to the goddess of love.”) There is a sense in his line and throughout the play that love is instinctive, life-changing and necessary, whatever its consequences may be. It is also a great torment. After the play’s light, almost optimistic, opening this is conveyed deeply in the second half. It marks the end of their honeymoon phase, the men tortured and pacing. Their storylines, only just touching before, now come together in a dramatic climax of frustrated love. The actors demonstrate an especial understanding of the heightened sentimentality and drama that, for anyone who knows Russia, is a national requisite. They render beautifully that sense of suffering which Dostoevsky described so faithfully: “I believe that the main and most fundamental spiritual quest of the Russian people is their craving for suffering – everywhere and in everything. The suffering stream…gushes from the people’s very heart.” This mix of emotions is superbly mirrored by the costumes, music and props. The ‘beautiful stranger’, played by celebrated international model Katia Elizarova, steps lightly across the stage in a floating silk gown and elbow-length gloves, her delicate beauty echoing the dreamlike nature of their short-lived encounter. The back of her blonde hair is expertly fixed in a braid, the front is unkempt and catches in her eyes. Beside her the lieutenant smokes, adding a sweet smell and blue coiling smoke to the scene. The old-world music brings to mind a pleasantly crackling gramophone and папироза (papirosa) cigarettes, while red and white lights are refracted over the sand. And yet a constant sense of discomfort juxtaposes with this serenity: the spotlights glare down on the lovers like a harsh sun, their clothes are layered and inhibitive, and the sand soon finds its way into the folds of their clothes and the shoes of the audience members. And throughout is the mesmerizing, dancing figure of Masumi Saito – the love motif, or perhaps the tragedy of love? Clad in a white and red kimono, she weaves in and out of the scenes, giving a powerful physical expression to the two stories. Her movements – serene and languid at times, pounding, delirious and terrifying at others – speak just as loudly as the actors. In the opening scene we see Saito bring in a chest which she places on the ground and opens, ritual-like, to reveal a bright red cloth. Unwrapping it, she pulls out a delicate glass decanter. At the end, once the respective affairs have wilted, she returns with that elusive box and gingerly wraps up the glass to replace it inside. What is it that was released only to be locked up again? Can you reopen it or will it forever be closed? Thought-provoking, mournful and altogether enchanting, Sunstroke is an imaginative combination of two of Russia’s greatest writers. It leaves you either with a sense of relief or regret at your own relationships and encounters with love. So much is up to the audience in this play, forcing us to reflect on our own romantic experiences. As the director Oleg Mirochnikov asks us all: “What is love? A dream, sunstroke, languor of spirit, a pain or a blessing?” Belka Productions Belka Productions was formed in 2011 by Oliver King, Rosy Benjamin and Oleg Mirochnikov together with a collective of European theatre practitioners. The company’s aim is to create bold, physically expressive and imaginative productions of Russian texts that have rarely been presented to English audiences, and act as a focus for Anglo-Russian cultural exchange. Their first production, the UK premiere of Leonid Zorin’s A Warsaw Melody, was staged at the Arcola Theatre in London in March and April 2012. It garnered a string of great reviews and was Critics Choice in The Times for the duration of the run. The company is currently working on a number of productions for next year, including A Dashing Fellow (22nd April – 17th May 2014, New Diorama Theatre).