Sometimes there's an unexpected serendipity to picking festival shows. So it was on Saturday, when your humble correspondent landed in Perth. My first day here included some of the final performances of two shows from the earlier weeks of the festival - Donka: A Letter to Chekhov, by Swiss company Teatro Sunil, and The Red Shoes, an adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson's remarkably cruel story by Cornish company Kneehigh Theatre. The rhymes between the shows ranged from clowns to rose petals: but in the end, it was the differences that intrigued me.
Donka: A Letter to Chekhov is precisely what it claims to be: a theatrical letter to Anton Chekhov. (Reflecting Chekhov's passion for fishing, "donka" is the Russian word for a small bell attached to a fishing rod, which rings when there is a bite.) Writer/director Daniele Finzi Pasca glances off almost all of Chekhov's writing, including his sojourn to the penal colony of Sakhalin, where he took the first census of the convict population and campaigned for education for the many children born there, but the key here is lightness.
The Chekhov summoned here is more the letter writer than the tragedian. Donka leaps from the playfulness and surreality that shines in some of his earlier, lesser known short stories, or the love of absurdity and wicked sense of humour of his letters, which must be among the most enjoyable authorial correspondence ever published, and which reveal a man who is a far cry from the melancholic Russian depressive his name commonly summons. Chekhov the sensualist was, for a long time, edited out of the biographies: but a sensualist he was.
He was a man of the theatre, with passionate relationships with actors and directors (among many others, the avant garde director Vsevolod Meyerhold and Chekhov were regular correspondents). And he also shared the love of his peers for circus, which in early 20th century Russia entered the theatre as an art form. The poet Vladimir Mayakovsky remains, at least to my knowledge, the only person to have written literary works for circus. It's this tradition of circus which is summoned in this show.
Rolando Tarquini, in a white summer suit based on a famous photograph of Chekhov, represents the writer, although he doesn't, as it were, play Chekhov: Donka is an exercise in metatheatrics as much as anything else. Rather, he and his fellow clowns present a show in which various images are introduced - skating, fishing, hospital beds - that become symbolic of different aspects of Chekhov's life. These in turn become occasions for some sublimely lyrical circus acts. Using standard circus tropes - aerial acts, juggling, the wheel, shadow play - the company creates visual fantasias that quicken into an imaginative life that is purely their own.
The performers are as skilled as any I've seen, but what is most breath-taking is how the choreography and design lifts circus into poetic performance. There are moments of joyous wit, as when two acrobats lying on the ground are projected onto a curtain front-stage, so we see their vertical images as they move on the horizontal plane. The vertical image shows an apparent chair act, in which the performers appear to be - quite literally - defying gravity. At the same time, the performers on the ground are perfectly visible. We are in on the joke, and enjoy its ingenuity: at the same, we catch that childlike astonishment - look, she is walking on his fingertips! - that is something like wonder. Then there are others, as in a set piece where an ice chandelier descends on the stage and is smashed to pieces by the cast, which aside from their compellingly strange beauty, foreground the sense of transience that is the emotional timbre of the show.
Maybe the key phrase is a quote from The Seagull: "Life should be represented, not as it is, not as it should be, but as it appears in a dream": this is a performer's dream of Chekhov. Underlying its lightness is a preoccupation with death, a search for what vanishes (where is the soul?) and what remains behind. A recurring image is Chekhov's death bed, and close to the end is an absurd representation of a duel, where the duellists spray endless bottles of sparkling stage blood all over the stage. As the show unfolded, I began to find it almost unbearably moving: as each act succeeded the other, its images created and dismantled before my eyes, Donka's transparency, ingenuity and beauty began cumulatively to reveal something about the fragility of the act of making theatre.
Donka strikes me very much as a recognition of and tribute to Chekhov's delight in the serious play and illusion of theatre. To represent death on stage is an absurdity: Donka allows us recognise this, and then, by exposing its artifice, reminds how it is theatre itself that is mortal, a gesture drawn on the air that shines for a moment and then vanishes forever, to exist only in the memories of those who saw it. Chekhov understood this as well as Beckett did. Yes, it's a show about pleasure, and is a crowd-pleasing, sensuous riot notable for the beauty of its design and lighting. But it reminded me how profound pleasure can be.
The Red Shoes, which was first performed in 2000, also relies heavily on clowning, this time by a cast who seem to be channelling every popular comedian in Britain. Hans Christian Anderson's story concerns an orphaned girl whose vanity leads her to buy a pair of red shoes, deceiving her blind guardian. She is horribly punished when she finds she can't take the shoes off, and is forced to keep dancing past the point of utter exhaustion. At last her feet are chopped off and she repents her vanity, walking around on stumps until she is accepted into heaven. The sadism of the story is compelling, and perhaps accounts for its multiple adaptations, particularly in film.
Adapted and directed by Emma Rice in 2000, the story is retold in rhyming couplets, building its theatre from the ground up. The design has a junkshop aesthetic, with the improvisatory air of having been thrown together from available materials. The whole is overseen by a witchy pantomime dame, Lady Lydia (Giles King), who acts as a master of revels, appointing roles to the performers and narrating the story, and the music is performed live by Stu Barker and Ian Ross. The five performers who enact the story are stripped to their essential clown: their heads are shaved and they are dressed in ill-fitting white underpants and vests, so they become, like Anderson's anti-heroine, objects of humiliation and ridicule. As they are appointed to different roles, they put on the appropriate costume, so we literally see the theatre made in front of our eyes.
There's much to like in these ingredients: the Kneehigh company give performances of infectious energy, and their clowning was received rapturously by the audience. But I found myself falling into longueurs: there was a paucity of invention in the conventions it set up (at once point, I thought that if I saw another suitcase, I would scream) and I felt patronised by the text, which is uncomfortably pitched between child and adult sensibilities, without quite being able to decide where to exist. It's often forgotten that Anderson was regarded in his own time as a writer for adults, counting among his many admirers Henrik Ibsen, which might explain the difficulty here.
For me, the troubling misogyny of Anderson's story, in which a young girl is mutilated for her nascent sexuality (for what else do those red shoes represent, really?) is somehow reinforced rather than questioned: the taint of public shame that infects Anderson's fable is consciously woven into the experience of its theatre, but is rendered oddly innocuous by its comedy. In this version, the Girl (Patrycja Kujawska) refuses Anderson's redemption, in which her "heart breaks" and she enters heaven, where no one asks her about her red shoes; instead she runs away from the forgiving Christ into the audience, presumably defiant even in death. I don't know whether, if the story had been followed to its puritan finale, the effect might have been more troubling, and thus more conducive to thought. As it was, it left me feeling strangely empty.
Donka: A Letter to Chekhov, written, directed, choregraphed and lighting design by Daniele Finzi Pasca. Music composed and orchestrated by Maria Bonzanigo, set by Hugo Garguilo. Performed by Moira Albertalli, Karen Bernal, Helena Bittencourt, Sara Calvanelli, Veronica Melis, David Menes, Beatriz Sayad and Rolando Tarquini. Teatro Sunil, His Majesty's Theatre, Perth Festival. Closed.
The Red Shoes, based on the story by Hans Christian Anderson, adapted and directed by Emma Rice. Design by Bill Mitchell, music by Stu Barker, lighting by Malcolm Rippeth, sound by Mike Shepherd. Performed by Giles King, Patrycja Kujawska, Dave Mynne, Robert Luckay, Mike Shepherd, Stu Barker and Ian Ross. Kneehigh Theatre, Octagon Theatre, Perth Festival. Closed.