Bad productions of Chekhov try to play the melancholy. In good productions, that melancholy – the indefinable yearning we associate with the adjective “Chekhovian” – seeps out anyway, often against the run of play. And so it is with Lev Dodin’s masterful Platonov. The most uplifting and visually beautiful moment is also one of the saddest: the stage is filled with candles, night lights bob on the water that surrounds the set, fireworks spin and fizz. It brilliantly evokes that intoxicating atmosphere of a balmy, early summer night, yet sadness and solitude settle on each of the characters as they stand, surrounded by the gaiety. Loss and uncertainty are in the air.

Dodin’s perfectly nuanced, witty production, performed (in Russian with surtitles) by the Maly Drama Theatre of St Petersburg, is full of such moments and achieves a cohesion that holds the play together. This early work, with its restless, self-destructive hero Platonov, prefigures many of the themes and characters that surface in Chekhov’s later plays. But it is also a rather rambling affair. Dodin cuts it and laces it with music and water. The actors plunge in and out of the river that runs through the set, often doing so in moments of abandon, so they are both physically and emotionally sodden. They all play instruments and often strike up alone, in duets or all together, using music to express their moods. Frequently, action downstage is underscored by a character raging on the drums, tinkling on the piano or mournfully picking out a tune on the sax. This wraps the whole piece in a dreamy, Great Gatsby-ish feel.

The action takes place mostly on Anna Petrovna’s estate. But Anna, a widow, is in debt and is auctioning the estate, so an air of uncertainty hangs over the guests gathered for an early summer party. While the businessmen act, the other guests play out a fatal dance of desire, with four women vying for the love of Platonov, a passionate, disillusioned teacher. He oscillates between the women, hurting all in the process. But his problem – as Sergey Kuryshev’s excellent, driven performance suggests – is more existential than romantic. And as he and his life unravel, Dodin and his ensemble cast beautifully express the way happiness can slip away, like water through open fingers.
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