Tchekov at the House of Special Purpose, written by R. Johns depicts, the last days of 'The Romanovs', the imperial family of Russia before the Russian Civil War 1918 – 1921.
Tsar Nicholas II Romanov and Tsarina Alexandra Fyodorovna 'disappeared' in 1917, with their son Prince Alexei, four daughters Grand Duchesses Tatiana, Olga, Maria and Anastasia, Kharitonov their cook, Trupp their valet and Dr Botkin, the family doctor and chambermaid Anna Demidova. They are captured by 'The Reds' under Vladimir Lenin's Bolshevik Revolution and held under 'house arrest' inside Ipatiev House, until their execution 78 days later in 1918.
Eighty years later, their decapitated skeletons were discovered and excavated for forensic analysis from a swamp nearby Ipatiev House. The mystery surrounding the exact details of the Romanovs disappearance and execution holds the key to the rise of the superpowers Russia and America and to the dark and psychopathic nature of some of the historical characters, especially Yurovsky.
Anastasia and Yurovsky - photo by John Lloyd Fillingham
Director Alex Menglet has stripped back the drama to its bare bones to a 90-minute intense performance, much shorter than a Chekhov play. This is a challenging feat, as the myths and speculation about the Romanovs demise fill libraries around the world.
The play is set inside 'Ipatiev House', a merchant's house in Yekaterinburg, (now known as Sverdlovsk) in Russia. It's hot, full of mosquitoes and insects, there is little food or water, and the doors and windows are boarded up, stifling airflow and knowledge of the Romanov's location. Peter Mumford's production and set design is rustic and fitting, with special attention to detail evident in the Romanov's suitcases, the broken chandelier and Dr Botkin's wheelchair.
The Romanov's are awaiting their trial in Moscow and are hopeful they will be called to testify their innocence soon. Meanwhile, they are under guard, day and night by Oxana (Anita Torrance), the Guard (Maria Paula Afanador) and Ivan (Huw Jennings) a local working-class boy who has joined 'The Reds' so he can feed his mother.
Oxana and 'Citizen Nicholas Romanov photo by John Lloyd Fillingham
Oxana strips 'Citizen' Nicholas Romanov (Jim Daly) of his belt and vodka, whilst his wife Alexandra (Roxana Paun Trifan) remains stoic, despite her physical pain and reliance on Dr Botkin's (Phil Roberts) decreasing supply of morphine.
Alexandra is under no illusions and believes the family will be rescued by 'The Whites' and represents the stoic republican aristocracy, wearing her sash of pearls until the very end. Alexandra vows never to fall into the hands of 'The Reds' at any cost – in fact, she despises them, even more, when she discovers her daughter Maria (Joanna Halliday) has fallen in love with Ivan, one of their captors.
Anastasia, Tatiana and Olga photo by John Lloyd Fillingham
The four duchesses are portrayed as 'angels' dressed in Hanging Rock Miranda style ivory dresses, beautifully designed and made by Michael Mumford, which highlights their romantic personalities. The duchesses love to play, sing, dance and create theatre. Anastasia or 'Ana' (Natalia Rozpara) the youngest dreams of playing the lead in a Chekhov play on a Moscow stage – Chekhov is her favourite playwright, referencing Chekhov's Three Sisters also written about the Russian revolution.
Olga, (Meg McKibbin) the eldest daughter remains under the care of Dr Botkin, particularly at night, as she is animated by dreams and prophecies – she is a fragile and broken character, a little like Blanche Dubois in Tennessee Williams A Street Car Named Desire. At one stage she speaks of Ivan's death, which Maria refuses to believe. Each of the duchesses wears a gold locket with some of Rasputin's magic to keep them safe. Rasputin was known as The Romanovs 'holy man' and Olga seems to imbibe his spirit
Tatiana appears as the 'mother' of the four, however, her back story is not explored in the play in detail. Dr Botkin is the family doctor however, his remedies are questionable, especially with his belief in Rasputin's magic. However, he is a likeable character and very affectionate towards the duchesses who take care to wheel him in and out of the performance.
Citizen' Nicholas Romanov is an ageing Tsar, with physical aches and pains, he smokes, complains of asthma and appears as a philosophical and romantic leader. To 'The Reds' he represents the bourgeois intelligentsia, living a life of lavishness and art. His deep affection for his daughters is evident and he is good fun, which helps to alleviate the despair of their situation. However, whether he is leadership material is questionable.
Kharitonov and Nicholas Romanov photo by John Lloyd Fillingham
One of my favourite scenes in the play is where Kharitonov (Gregory J. Fryer) gives Nicholas a bath (which must be quite cold on stage) and this shows the respect and caring relationship they have for each other, even though Kharitonov is the cook, a servant well below a Tsar. Nicholas relationship with Dr Boktin is similar, servants are friends, not slaves, yet Lenin's style of communism is not favoured.
All is looking hopeful in Tchekov's House of Special Purpose until Yurovsky (Adam May) turns up to announce the family will be moved. This news brings joyous relief and hope to the Romanovs – as they believe they will be rescued, or at worst case shipped off to England where they can start a new life.
However, this is not to be, as the evil Yurovsky has other plans. He appears endearing to Anastasia the actress, who is quickly saved by Oxana, who despite her devotion to Lenin, is in this game to survive, but not necessarily to kill, unlike the menacing Yurovsky. Oxana plays devil's advocate and tries to protect the duchesses from their innocence and naivety to the outside world.
Yurovsky features near the end of the play, which does not provide enough space to explore his darkness and there is a lot of it - perhaps a sequel?
Despite some opening night jitters – a few dropped and overlapping lines, the cast eventually relaxed into their roles. It was difficult to hear the dialogue at times, due to a mix of accents, lack of vocal projection and articulation.
The use of dance, play, silent film and mime was well executed and highlighted the romanticism of the Romanovs and their positive outlook, despite the darkness they were to face.
Plays like Tchekov at The House of Special Purpose remind us of humanity's dark history, where disappearance and genocide of families and culture, destruction of literature, historical records and art has devastating effects on society. It's a subtle warning to protect our freedom of speech and expression through theatre and the arts – and not to surrender to those who seek to destroy its role.