Ah, the Romanov Dynasty – there is much romanticism associated with the ill-fated imperial family, especially of the final Tsar Nicholas II and his family (including daughter Anastasia, of whom conspiracy theories of her survival culminated in the musically enjoyable but historically inaccurate film Anastasia). Perhaps it is the pathetic nature of the family brought low through intrigue, incompetence, and revolutionary zeal of the brutal Bolsheviks; perhaps it is the hopeless imaginations of those who imagine happy peasants and kindly monarchs in the exotic lands of Russia; perhaps it is simply a hangover of anti-Bolshevik propaganda (or the fact that the cruelties of the Tsarist regime paled with what Stalin did later). It is something that is a bit unusual really – in Australian popular memory no-one really romanticises the last Chinese Emperor (Puyi) or the German Kaiser (Wilhelm II), both of whom were contemporaries of Nicholas II, and were deposed and forced to endure an equally tragic fate of watching their worlds collapse around them, and their legacies annihilated by incompetent then bloodthirsty regimes. Perhaps it is just the lack of children’s cartoons about their daughters. Ah well.
Tchekov at the House of Special Purpose is a play that does not romanticise the final days in a massive way. The Tsar is a pathetic character, his wife has clearly not caught up with the fact that the guards are no longer underlings to be sniffed at, and the children attempt to do what children in traumatic situations always do – pretend it is not terrible. The guards a re a bit stereotypical, from the hapless but well-meaning young revolutionary through to the starving and jaded second-in-command and the creepy and insidious commissar. Romance, drama, despair, humour, and especially fear were emotions that were explored onstage, but at no-time was the regime of the Tsar lionised as somehow a naturally superior form of government than the Bolshevik government. In fact, any time nostalgia seemed to creep in, it was either lampooned as being out of touch with reality (such as the Tsar complaining about the lack of baths he could have, or through the “philosophy” of a morphine-addicted doctor), or reminded that their current suffering was nothing compared to the pains of those who had slaved under the Tsarist regime. It was a nice touch, and whilst sympathy was generally a feeling to be had for the suffering family (and even for the Bolshevik captors), there was always enough of a reminder that things had not been rosy under the Tsar either.
There are several attempts at meta commentary during the play, as there are several botched attempts by one of the characters to set up a play (within a play), which brought the whole thing into a new and slightly absurdist light – two of the characters seemed at least partially aware of what was going on (and one of them was clearly not mentally there), which made for some odd but fun interludes. The whole “play-within-a-play” schtick added to the uncomfortable and tragic element as well – every time something tragic happened, the performance the daughters were supposed to perform was delayed or postponed – or perhaps every time something hard-hitting was presented to the audience, the childish hope was used to counteract it. Either way, it makes for an interesting approach.
Despite this positive approach and style, there were some oddities about the play that made it not quite stand-out as excellent. A weird dance number featuring a Rammstein’s song “Mutter” seemed a surreal start to the show and was out of place (there was an acute lack of Rammstein in the play further down the track to justify it). The fact that only half the actors were instructed to use faux-Russian accents (all invariably Bolsheviks) was slightly inconsistent, and the sheer number of characters and subplots meant it was difficult to emotionally engage with the characters on as deep a level as was warranted. Although mentioned above as a positive aspect, the confusion between comedy and pathos did detract at times from the emotional impact of some moments, surrealism aside. And finally, it was difficult at times to determine what was lecherous intent (displayed by the commissar) and what was a warped version of concern (the female second in command was actually more “hands-on” than her superior, but it was unclear whether this was predatory in the same way) – clarity would have helped determine sympathy or revulsion at the different characters.
Overall, an interesting play and concept, that hopefully helps begin to unwind the weird mythology around the final dynasty of the Russian Empire. If you have an interest in trying to see more a more human interpretation of the final days of the Romanov family, then this play is something for you.
Tchekov at the House of Special Purpose is at La Mama Theatre from August 28 – September 8. Book tickets here.