Sub Editor Sophia Hinton-Lever discusses the nature of transforming play texts in relation to ‘Ward 6 – An adaptation of a short novel by Anton Chekhov’.
Anton Chekhov’s work is notoriously hard to adapt. Earlier in 2014 English writer and creative, Simon Stephens, admitted to the world in his article for the Guardian ‘Why my Cherry Orchard is a failure’ that he himself didn’t think it was a feasible task. He mused that in his adaptation his sole focus was linguistic and he wished to keep the characters, themes and plot true to its origins. However, one of the fundamental flaws in this logic is that there is no pure translation. Language shifts and mutates historically as well as geographically and to assume the possibility of a perfect translation is to ignore these shifts and changes. It is for these reasons that the concept of an adaptation of short stories by the Russian playwright interested me. As there is no need for direct translations, the pitfalls that Stephens highlights can be avoided and focus can be placed on the character progression and relationships on stage.
The characters in this production, directed and adapted by Victor Sobchak, are divided into patients of Ward 6 and the doctors or gentry that spend their time taunting them. We can see from the cliché long white gowns worn by those being ‘treated’ by the asylum and certain aspects of the minimalist set that a Chekhovian time period is being alluded too. Characters who wear the white gowns are based on personas found in Chekhov’s plays including the three sisters from ‘The Three Sisters’, Nina from ‘The Seagull’ and Chekhov himself. This clever idea, which endeavours to show the conflict between philosophy and reality, does not quite translate. It is through no fault of the actors, whose task to find truth in a mentally ill character without appearing self-indulgent is rife with its difficulties. In fact, Nina Tolleret’s self-written role of ‘Nina’ is sensitively and beautifully delivered, depicting a clear portrayal of a ruined woman who holds the ghosts of the character who shares her name in ‘The Seagull’. The problem within this production is the structure of the writing. There are lengthy sections where each of the patients deliver a monologue to the audience in succession and are simply not enjoyable to watch. This has nothing to do with the acting but everything to do with the fact that the actors cannot listen or react to one another. Theatre becomes exciting when statuses are fought for and relationships develop. This is impossible when the characters aren’t able to communicate and when no time or thought has been given to them actually communicating. Therefore the level of empathy an audience can feel is limited.
One of the traits that is underused and overlooked in most productions of Chekhov is his dry wit and comic genius. This production doesn’t completely ignore it, thanks to Joey Bartram’s intelligent characterisation of Mikhail which acts as much needed light relief and a brilliant display of stage presence. However, it does skim over it. A far more diverse and dynamic production could have been created if, say, the relationship between Mr. Bartram’s character and Alexander Myall’s The Doctor had been explored. A dark comedy could have been developed which arguably would have culminated in being a far more evocative piece as the audience would have had the chance to emotionally engage with the characters, and not just to observe them.
The production has a strong concept. However, it needs to rethink its aims. Does it merely display the cruelty of asylums in 1900’s Russia or does it stay true to Chekhov’s themes of deterioration of human relationships and how they are reflected externally? It is clear to me which one they should choose.