Wild Honey, the 1984 version of Chekhov’s early play without a title by Michael Frayn, has been on my to-see list for a long time now, and I was frankly thrilled when I found out that it was going to be produced at the Hampstead Theatre. It was directed by Howard Davies, who sadly died towards the end of last year, and Jonathan Kent, fresh from the Young Chekhov trilogy.
The play comes hot on the heels of David Hare’s version which played at the National last year, but I detected a different tone in this version. Whereas last year’s Platonov, delivered as part of the Young Chekhov season, aimed to show the development of the youthful dramatist, Wild Honey is more of a polished play in its own right. For what it’s worth, I loved them both.
On the first day of summer in the Russian countryside, a group of old friends congregates at the home of Anna Petrovna, a young widow. Included in the party is Platonov, the schoolmaster, whose moralising and intellectual nature has led his peers to brand him as a philosopher. However, the arrival of a young woman he knew as a student in Moscow – now the wife of Anna Petrovna’s stepson – forces him to examine his life and reflect on the loss of his early promise.
There’s a particular moment when this woman, Sofya, looks at Platonov and asks, “Why haven’t you done better?” and you can see the pain in his eyes as he is forced to confront his own mediocrity. I think most people come to the same realisation at some point in their lives, but it’s incredible that Chekhov understood this when he was only barely out of his teens. Even as the play descends into wildly funny farce, with various women chasing Platonov around the forest, you get the sense that he is really using these love entanglements as a distraction from his real worries.
Indeed, the farcical nature of the play is perfect for adaptor Michael Frayn, whose own farce Noises Off is a classic of the genre. There is comedy, as Platonov tries to juggle his interactions with practically every character in the play. And yet, being Chekhov, tragedy is never far from the surface: both in the main character’s realisation of his own inconsequence, and in the ending, which deviates from the original but which is no less shocking for that.
The play is supported by a superb cast, led by Geoffrey Streatfeild, last seen playing Ivanov at the National, hits all the right notes as the infuriating yet sympathetic Platonov: completely believable as someone whom all the women around him would fall for, but nevertheless rude, selfish and deeply flawed.
Rob Howell’s wooden set evokes the spirit of nineteenth-century Russia, and there is a superb train effect that left a lasting impression on me. Hampstead has scored a hit here as far as I am concerned – a must-see for any Chekhov fan.