‘Overwhelming love’ for two Chekhov plays

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Phillip Mackenzie, left, and John Cuffe rehearsing the Chekhov plays.

theatre / “Smoking is Bad for You” and “Swansong”, directed by Liz Bradley, Smith’s Alternative, May 30. Reviewed by ARNE SJOSTEDT.

THERE often seems to be a synergetic energy between the audience and actors whenever Anton Chekhov’s plays are performed. It grows, perhaps, from a mutual appreciation of the playwright’s naturalist drama.

The result is a special theatrical experience as actors enjoy themselves as much as each audience member. Now, this might not happen with every production, however, it certainly was the case with the Liz Bradley directed double bill featuring Phillip Mackenzie in “Smoking is Bad for You”, with John Cuffe joining him for “Swansong”.

The performances follow a day commemorating late director and Canberra High School principal, Ralph Wilson, which took place at Gorman Arts Centre on Tuesday, May 28. This collection of plays represented a reprise of Wilson’s 1985 production of the same works.

With the lion’s share of stage time and dialogue, Mackenzie, who with Wilson founded the Classical Theatre Ensemble in the 1980s, gave an artful, delicate, faltering and nuanced performance that seemed to exemplify much of what presenting Chekhov is about.

Commenting on “The Wood Demon”, his first version of Uncle Vanya, Chekhov once famously said: “In life, people do not shoot themselves, or hang themselves, or fall in love, or deliver themselves of clever sayings every minute.”

“They spend most of their time eating, or drinking, running after women, or men, or talking nonsense. It is therefore necessary that this should be shown on the stage,” he said.

In “Smoking is Bad for You”, audiences were treated to this in spades, as Mackenzie gave a lecture on the dangers of smoking, the majority of which was spent on any topic but that. He followed suit in “Swansong”, reminiscing on his life on and away from the stage, struggling with his loss of strength, but revelling in the power of performing that has made up his life.

The overwhelming feeling during this short evening of theatre was satisfaction and love. Love for theatre, love for art, and love for Chekhov, who even in translation can weave a spell with his words like no other. All this brought to satisfying life by Bradley and cast.

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