Sunstroke is a somewhat difficult piece that can’t help but feel inconsequential. At the centre of the drama is Chekhov’s hauntingly simple ‘The Lady with the Dog’, in which a Muscovite banker meets a young lady in Yalta, beginning a brief but passionate affair. This is ‘mashed up’, to use the 21st Century term, with Bunin’s ‘A Sunstroke’ – a similar tale of a lieutenant who strikes up a relationship with a beautiful young woman, only to lose her after a whirlwind romance. Both stories play in parallel with each other, but there is a distinct unevenness between the two that makes the whole piece feel sadly one sided.
Director Oleg Mirochnikov has valiantly attempted to fuse the two together, which on paper, or indeed in his head, should have worked. Both stories share a similar theme of infidelity and flash-in-the-pan relationships that are heightened by their surroundings. The lesser known Bunin piece is somewhat badly handled by Mirochnikov, who doesn’t allow it the same space to breathe as the Chekhov, which as a result drags down both narratives. Scenes in the former are kept too short, with few words or exploration – instead he presents a collection of longing looks and desperate sighs that only slow down the overall pace. The Chekhov adaptation is much more successful, but again feels undeveloped and affected by an overly conscious form by the director. Rather than letting it unfold naturally, the short scenes keep their passions faltering, and both characters seem deliberately cold. As someone who always enjoys the lighter side of Chekhov’s works, I would have liked to see the tone lift throughout, showing the experience as a much more pleasurable experience for both characters, sharpening the pace and lightening the feel, to provide a more substantial contrast with the Bunin.
The overall production is stunningly beautiful, which is testimony to Belka Production’s commitment dedication to bringing these works to the stage. Set in a long traverse with two raised platforms at each end, the stage is covered in sand, which instantly creates the atmosphere and makes for a highly effective performance space. Howard Hudson’s lighting design is first rate, and he perfectly captures the energy, focus and feel of each scene, enhancing the overall performance and allowing the two stories to seem in some way conjoined. There is an impressive use of projections by Simon Eves, raising the bar of the production further, giving the whole piece a sense of class and professionalism that is rarely seen on the fringe.
The five actors offer a range of skills that collectively make for an enjoyable performance. Rosy Benjamin plays the Lady with the Dog with a stunning air of grace and charm, but seems almost repressed by the direction. She is suitably reserved, allowing herself to be chased whilst enjoying the sand and heat of the Russian Riviera. Stephen Pucci however struggles with subtley, and often misses the rhythm of the text and pace of each scene. He should ooze charm as the Muscovite banker, but instead comes across as flat and unmoving as the central narrator the piece relies on. He seems too big for the room, struggling with the traverse setting which sees him constantly turning around, rather like one of Chekhov’s own spinning tops. He fails to inhabit the role successfully, creating no personal journey with which the audience can invest in, and Chekhov’s deliberate lack of resolution is sadly wasted.
Oliver King is successful as the love-struck lieutenant, but is sadly let down by the material his character is given. He works hard at making the Bunin force through the narrative, but is not helped by his love interest who fails to ignite any form of passion. Russian model Katia Elizarova brings a great deal of elegance to her acting debut, but sadly fails to prove that she has the acting ability required to breathe life into an undeveloped character. Whilst she should be at home hanging off the arms of handsome men on foreign shores (the red tops have made a lot of her close relationship with Sherlock actor Benedict Cumberbatch), she gets through the part in a Woody Allen ‘Bullets Over Broadway’ type way, and is left playing with a ball like a disengaged puppy.
Whilst the Platform Theatre took some time to find, it is certainly worth the effort. Belka Productions are an exciting, intelligent and highly professional company that treat their work with the upmost integrity. With countless production companies sprouting up throughout London, it is refreshing to find one that has found a specific niche in the market, and are dedicated to delivering that in new and exciting ways. Whilst Sunstroke may not be the most successful fusion of two great Russian writers, the elegant production qualities and solid delivery make this a rare chance to see an interesting new piece, in a real up and coming venue.
Sunstroke runs at the Platform Theatre August 28th – September 21st 2013
for more information about Belka Productions, please visit: http://www.belkaproductions.co.uk