Chekhov In Hell opens this weekend

17:00, May 09 2012
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The cast of Chekhov in Hell. "His attitude as a writer always strikes me as one of [having] a kind of distant, slightly amused, slightly horrified view of his characters," says playwright Dan Rebellato.

Dan Rebellatio is a professor of contemporary theatre at the University of London, where he teaches theatre, playwrighting, music and performance, and philosophy.

He's written about big name playwrights, including Dario Fo, David Hare, Terence Rattigan and Noel Coward. He's also an associate editor of Contemporary Theatre Review and New Theatre Quarterly.

But Rebellato doesn't fit the stereotype of an ivory tower academic. This is a man who describes himself on his Twitter account as a "world-renowned playwright and exotic dancer".

He's probably correct about the first half. One of his recent works, Chekhov in Hell , opens in Wellington this weekend and is his first to be staged in New Zealand. In the play the famous and influential 19th-century Russian playwright wakes out of a 100-year coma to find himself in 21st-century Britain. He is bewildered and fascinated as aspects of the modern world are paraded in front of him, including reality television, smartphones, feng shui, sex trafficking, celebrity chefs, pole dancing and social networking.

Rebellato describes his play as a funny satire about modern life. It isn't simply an "ironical" look through the eyes of a time-travelling outsider, because irony has lost its power, he says. "I always think of Friends the sitcom. The character Chandler is wall-to-wall irony. All he ever does is constantly say a sarcastic sentence. Chandler has kind of spread to become a kind of governing tone of American popular culture."

The idea for the play came from it being pitched as an exercise in Rebellato's classes at the London university. One of his students was Kiwi Eleanor Bishop, who is directing the Wellington production.

"Dan Rebellato introduced me to an exciting world of new, cutting-edge writing," says Bishop. "It totally blew my fragile 20-year-old mind. But as well as being a guru on modern British theatre, Dan's also a fantastic playwright and it's an honour to introduce Kiwi audiences to his work."

"When I read Chekhov's plays and when I teach them one of the things that becomes apparent is his playwriting tone of voice," says Rebellato. "His attitude as a writer always strikes me as one of [having] a kind of distant, slightly amused, slightly horrified view of his characters. One of the ways of thinking about that or to clarify that was to ask my students 'What do you think he would make of the way we live'?"

Chekhov is more than a character in the play  and there's an acknowledgment of its origins. It actually opens like a Chekhov play, with characters even speaking in Russian and German, before entering the 21st century.

But Rebellato says Chekhov in Hell isn't a simple critique of modern life's easy targets. "I feel very torn in my attitude to the world around me. On the one hand I'm delighted by lots of things. I love my iPad, I love Twitter, I love all these sorts of things. On the other hand, I think there are some horrible scenes of the cruelty in the world around, and sometimes those two things go together. It struck me that that feeling of being both amused and delighted and horrified at the world is a very Chekhovian view of the world."

Chekhov in Hell premiered at the Theatre Royal Plymouth in 2010 before a season at London's Soho Theatre last year. It has since been fine tuned. Rebellato says he removed some specific London references after realising that the characters were universal. Otherwise, it's the same play. He also believes it will appeal to young audiences. Theatre Royal Plymouth had one night a week where it had discounted tickets for people aged under 26 and those nights were very popular, he says. "My feeling is that they probably responded to the up-to-dateness of it. One of the things I was trying to do when writing the play was to write a play where the language was absolutely now. It couldn't have been written 10 years ago."

Even with his academic commitments, Rebellato continues to create more plays. In just the past three years there have been five at various stages of development and length. They include Whistleblower, about a soldier in ancient times who witnesses a war crime. My Life is a Series of People Saying Goodbye  the title taken from a song by former Smiths' frontman Morrissey  follows several scenarios of people saying goodbye to each other. The five-minute long He Sees You When You're Sleeping  which Rebellato wrote while on a train journey from London to Glasgow  features an affluent couple surprised to learn that Santa Claus is really coming to town. Another, Manchester , is an entanglement between two delegates at the 2010 Labour Party conference in the city.

Among the plays he is working on is one about the death of the last speakers of a dying language. "I guess I am quite prolific," he says. "There are playwrights that I massively admire that you hear nothing of for five years and then they produce this wonderful distilled work of genius. And then there are other playwrights that I also completely adore, who you get a sense of relentless productivity and creativity."

And if there's an example of relentless productivity and creativity with Rebellato, it's been his ongoing project #Tag2012 with fellow playwright Daniel Bye. Effectively it's a play being written and performed in real time on Twitter since August last year. Twitter restricts each tweet from users to a maximum of 140 letters or numbers. Rebellato and Bye have created numerous characters with Twitter accounts  the two aren't even aware of all the characters each have created  and slowly a story has been unfolding about the mysterious disappearance of some people. Rebellato and Bye's Twitter characters have also interacted with real Twitter users without them realising the characters are fictional. Rebellato says he expects #Tag2012  the title is a reference to a method of searching on Twitter for common subjects  to continue until this August.

"I was on Twitter anyway and I have found that enjoyable and really informative. Twitter is a great invention" he says. "Artistically, to be pompous, there is something in that challenge of the 140 character space. There is a certain set of etiquette and a little bit of a grammar that emerges through Twitter. They make it haiku-like and in a way it's a bit like writing poetry."

The Details

Chekhov in Hell, Circa Two, May 12-June 9


The Dominion Post