National Theater, Taipei, Taiwan; March 14, 2014
It’s strange how sometimes you just get a really good feeling about a show, even though you know little about it and have never seen the company before. Such was the case with “Donka: A Letter to Chekov”. And what a premonition it turned out to be. It would probably have literary scholars frothing at the mouth in rage, but “Donka” is one of the best things I’ve seen in a long time, and definitely up in top half dozen ever at the Taiwan International Festival.
Created in 2009/10 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Chekhov’s birth, and co-produced with Moscow’s Chekhov International Theatre Festival, “Donka” is inspired by and based on Chekhov’s life and works. The title is important. “Donka” is not a letter from Chekhov, and it’s not a telling of his story. Although the white suited Rolando Tarquini represents the writer (as seen in a famous photograph), he doesn’t actually play him and there’s no narrative.
It’s Daniele Finzi Pasca’s modern-day response to the great Russian playwright. It’s a ‘letter’ from someone of today about someone of yesterday each new paragraph of which seems to treat us to a new, delightful and always beautifully staged vignette, many of which make reference to his life.
There are several nods to his work as a doctor, which he considered his main vocation. One ever crazier slapstick scene features contortionist Félix Salas as a patient in a hospital run by decidedly eccentric physicians, who pull his limbs in every direction imaginable, twisting him into ever more eccentric shapes, before he finally manages to flee.
There are references to the newly discovered use of fermented mare’s milk to treat pulmonary disorder and tuberculosis, which Chekov used to drink in an attempt to cure his TB, albeit to no avail as it eventually claimed his life. There’s also note about the fact his corpse was carried in a wagon marked ‘fresh oysters.’ And of course there’s his love of fishing, best seen in a mass angling scene where the rods and lines dance like half a dozen Loie Fullers. In Russian, a ‘donka’ is a bell attached to a fishing pole that signals a bite.
Those knowledgeable about his works will spot any number of likely connections too. Three women bicker as they dance on a static trapeze; surely Olga, Masha and Irina of “Three Sisters”. The mummers from the play are here too. One of the men occasionally comes on stage to announce “Konstantin is dead!” – presumably a reference to the doomed symbolist playwright of “The Seagull.” You might also spot Anya from “The Cherry Orchard”. There are probably more.
Whether you actually recognise the references doesn’t really matter. Just sit back and enjoy the imagery and the circus. Chekov loved circus, and there is plenty of that here, all done with supreme grace and artistic style. Often it’s incredibly poetic too. David Menes cyr wheel work is some of the best I’ve ever seen.
There’s more. There was also ice skating on a bare stage and a very serious duel with pistols that turns into a riotous water fight, the water spurting from the combatants’ wounds. Perhaps best of all is uses video trickery to project onto a screen in silhouette what appear to be a series of dazzling acrobatic balances. How does she walk up his arm? How does she balance like that on his head? Stage right all is revealed. We see two performers lying on the floor, simulating the moves as a camera shoots them from overhead. The audience loved it.
There’s poignancy too, especially in a scene that refers to Chekov’s death and that sees a clown costume laid over his failing body, and in the closing moments when the bed is pushed through and over performers, who leap on and off it with amazing timing and grace.
But most of all, it’s mad, mad, mad. About halfway through the second act, one of the men turns to one of the women and says, “I have this strange feeling, that people don’t understand what we’re really doing.” He is probably correct. But everyone is having such a great time, they don’t care anyway.
Throw into the mix Maria Bonzanigo’s always evocative music, Giovanna Buzzi’s spot on period costumes, Roberto Vitalini’s other video projections and Finzi Pasca’s own lighting, and you have a surreal world that’s sometimes balletic, sometimes whimsical, sometimes downright funny, where anything can, and often does, happen.
Even though Finzi Pasca has worked for Cirque du Soliel, don’t for a moment think this is that troupe in a different guise. Donka is much, much more than any Cirque show I’ve ever seen. It works on so many more levels. It’s also far more intimate, even when seen in a theatre as big as that in Taipei.
In “The Seagull”, Chekov wrote that one should “show life not the way it is, not the way it should be, but the way it is in a dream.” Donka is a dream to watch, and my guess is that it’s a dream to perform too. Chekhov reputedly had a wicked sense of humour. I suspect he would have loved it. If it comes near you, don’t miss it.