Wild Honey review – Frayn finds the farce in Chekhov's comic despair

Hampstead theatre, London
Michael Frayn excavates Chekhov’s six-hour drama, written when he was 20, for this bittersweet comedy about a schoolteacher torn between romantic rivals

It is strange seeing Michael Frayn’s play so soon after David Hare’s Platonov since both are hewn from the same prolix, six-hour text Anton Chekhov wrote when he was 20. What gives the occasion added poignancy is that this production was initiated by the late, great Howard Davies and rehearsed by Jonathan Kent, who directed Hare’s Young Chekhov trilogy at Chichester and the National. What strikes me is that there is room for two different approaches to the same sprawling original.

Frayn’s version is shorter and more farcical than Hare’s: it omits, however, one or two characters and makes less of the financial pressures on the beleaguered estate-owner Anna Petrovna. What both versions share is a compelling antihero in Platonov: a village schoolmaster once thought of as “a second Byron” who has dwindled into a neurotic Don Juan with a ruinous attraction for women. Like many of Chekhov’s later characters, he is tragic on the inside and comic on the outside, and Frayn makes the most of the sight of him pathetically torn between the rival claims of competing lovers.

Winter hibernation gives way to summer passions … the cast of Wild Honey.
Winter hibernation gives way to summer passions … the cast of Wild Honey. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Geoffrey Streatfeild, brilliant as Ivanov in Young Chekhov, looks a shade too mature for the 27-year-old Platonov. What he captures, though, is the character’s mix of sardonic intellect and self-loathing as he contemplates a wasted life and the emotional wreckage he has created. Justine Mitchell invests Anna Petrovna with the right headstrong ardour, and there is fine support from Sophie Rundle as an amatory rival, Rebecca Humphries as Platonov’s neglected wife and Jo Herbert as a volatile chemistry student.

Rob Howell’s tree-dominated design reminds us that this is a play about people waking up to summer passions after winter hibernation and, with the aid of Peter Mumford’s lighting, twice memorably conjures up the effect of an onrushing train. Rather than choosing between the Frayn and Hare versions, we should count ourselves lucky that two living dramatists have excavated a work that shows Chekhov’s precocious mastery of comic despair.


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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