3 Stars

★★★ Finishes All Too Soon

Simon Ward reviews Chekhov’s Dildo at The Hope Theatre

If you had never heard Chekhov’s famous dictum regarding the duty owed to the audience by a playwright, ie that it you introduce a gun in the first act, it must be used before the play is over, writer Rex Fisher, and designer Maia Frateantonio, ensure that it is seared onto your consciousness by displaying their sexed up version on the back wall of the stage. And, indeed, the idea is at the heart of this short but passionate and witty investigation into the nature of sex, power and responsibility. Further credit must go to Fraeantonio for an exquisitely detailed and seedy set, replete with Chekhovian references, not forgetting the seagull hovering over our protagonists’ heads. Chekhov fans will have fun throughout picking up on references and echoes from the great man.

Photo credit – Tia-Ama Amhyia

Yet the play begins in distinctly non-Chekhovian territory with Annabel (Olivia Barrowclough) and Rufus (Ruaridh Aldington) having sex, to all appearances, good sex, between two consenting young adults. By the end of the play, every one of those preconceptions will have been put to the test, and both leads adroitly navigate the shifting power dynamics between them as the play unfolds. We soon learn that in fact, Rufus is one of Annabel’s university lecturers, his relative youth notwithstanding. And that they have previously had a relationship which did not end well, certainly as far as Annabel is concerned. Which makes it all the more puzzling that Annabel should be back in bed with this man who has treated her badly.

Photo credit – Tia-Ama Amhyia

There are weighty themes here, leavened with wit and humour, and Merle Wheldon-Posner as director and Darcy Dixon as movement director, do well to ensure that we are engaged throughout. The couplings and uncouplings are believable and even touching, but also somewhat chilling when the characters’ real feelings about each other emerge. The huge double-ended dildo pokes its incongruous way in halfway through – it belongs to Rufus and leaves us with more questions than answers. The use to which it is eventually put seems grimly appropriate. In the great debate around sexual consent, Rufus insists that his relationship with Annabel was consensual and refuses to accept his being her teacher had any bearing – she is an adult. But when it comes to the impact of the breakup on her – her failing grades, her low self-esteem – he sees these as trivial because she is so young. His career, and the prospect of achieving tenure, is a serious adult matter, compared to her life. The last straw is when he writes up a negative report on Annabel’s work referring to her as ‘the student’ as though he were a dispassionate arbiter. And when he tries to weaponise the #MeToo movement against her, all sympathy evaporates.

Running at under an hour, I felt that there were more things going on than could be crammed into the time, and this could easily be expanded and allow more of the ideas to land. But as a glimpse into a relationship gone wrong, and the desperate measures people can be driven to, this is a compelling tale, well-told. Chekhov would have approved.

Chekhov’s Dildo runs until 18th February at The Hope Theatre, 207 Upper Street, Islington N1 1RL

Categories: 3 Stars, review

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