There’s no faulting the ambition of Wales’ Volcano Theatre. They’ve determined to make full use of this abandoned church on Leith’s Constitution Street for this Chekhov adaptation. It’s piled high with scaffolding, from which our performers are suspended in harnesses when we enter. The far end of the nave, hidden initially, has been flooded to create an indoor pool, and beyond it the fading glory of the former chancel and altar make an eerie stage. Across the space, five performers play out a heavily remixed version of the love triangles and theatrical passions found in the Chekhov original.
Visually, it’s very arresting. The elaborate set and architectural backdrop set up some glorious, absurd tableaux. Towards the end, swimsuit-clad characters can be found chopping wood, pushing prams and firing bows and arrows, in the abstract manner of an arthouse 80s pop video.
The cast of five are excellent performers too, called upon for a lot of physicality – dance and striptease, as well as the acrobatics. Characterisation is strong. Elin Phillips puts energy into ingenue Nina, whose youth is captured with modern interjections like “obvs”, and Irina is given a dose of attitude with the help of Mairi Phillips’ Scottish burr and bolshiness. Meanwhile, rival writers Treplev (Irina’s son) and Trigorin are given a distinctive flavour by Christopher Elson and Neal McWilliams, with Gethin Alderman a commanding Dorn. There’s humour, almost clownish in places, and good chemistry.
But the sin this production commits is putting ambition before coherence. For every scene that drives the plot forward – the Irina-directed theatrical introductions, or the lusty scene she plays out writhing on the floor before a rope-swinging Trigorin – there’s another that treads water – an easily removed dance routine to The Clash’s Should I Stay Or Should I Go?, for instance. Story is sacrificed to novelty.
There’s also too much made of moving around the space at the expense of the audience. This isn’t too bad while characters are clambering up and down the rigging or ducking beneath curtains, but half-way through, the audience are required to up and move, switching the action from traverse to end-on. If pot luck leaves you at the back when this happens, anything taking place in the pool or below eye level is lost.
Visually pleasing though it is, the production’s appeal is in seeing Chekhov done differently and the bold use of space, not in any broader purpose that could convince a cold audience.