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Reviews:

The Times, 18 March, 1993, by Benedict Nightingale
The Daily Telegraph, 18 March, 1993, by Charles Spencer
The Guardian, 18 March, 1993, by Michael Billington
Sunday Telegraph, March 21 1993, by John Gross
The Sunday Times, 21 March, 1993, by Robert Hewison
International Herald Tribune, 24 March, 1993, by Sheridan Morley

Our thanks to Lisa for sharing some of these.


The Times, Thursday, March 18, 1993

THEATRE: Benedict Nightingale has his doubts about a Russian classic

Pique fails to hit the heights

Griboyedov's bitter comedy is almost as well known in Russia as Gogol's Government Inspector, which it predates by 12 years; but it does not travel so well. One reason is that the plot is flimsier and the characters and their doings are less fun.

Another is that the play's satiric targets seem more local. And a third is that its colloquial witticisms and scathing rhymes cannot easily be smuggled across national frontiers. They tell me that any decent Russian dictionary of quotations contains 60-odd snippets from the play. For all its verve and dash, I cannot see Anthony Burgess's adaptation forcing the editors to update their British counterparts.

The title has variously and somewhat clunkily been rendered in English as Woe From Wit, Wit Works Woe, and The Misfortune of Being Clever. Though Burgess has subtitled his version (sponsored by AT&T) The Importance of Being Stupid, he is surely right to opt for Chatsky, since the play is a prolonged excuse for that gentleman to fling about in high-minded pique, denouncing Moscow and all its works. What Alceste is to Moliere's Misanthrope, Jimmy Porter to Look Back in Anger, and Holden Caulfield to Catcher in the Rye, he is to Griboyedov's dramatic plaint; and almost more self-indulgently.

Tim Hatley's eccentric if striking set consists of towering brown panels which swivel to become the outside of a bedroom, a chaotically Kafkaesque office, or a ballroom crammed with fat guttering candles that look like stunted stalagmites. These are all parts of the house of a government bigwig called Famusov, in Dinsdale Landen's performance a ruttish go-getter and cynic who looks like Old Macdonald after a night at the pub and, unfortunately, tends to talk like a great, growling chorus of his farm-animals. If he had crammed some of Burgess's rhymes into the food-processor, and turned on the switch, they would
hardly be more incoherent.

Anyway, Famusov's daughter Sophie (a demure Jemma Redgrave) has fallen into the clutches of his secretary (Jonathan Cullen), a whey-faced creep with a predatory mind and a Gazza-like accent, both of which he obsequiously conceals. Enter her former suitor, Colin Firth's Chatsky, his all-purpose contempt in no way dented by a three-year absence from his home city. From education policy to the Russian literary critics; from philistinism to the fashion for all things French: nothing escapes his Leavis-like scrutiny and Lawrence-like ire.

Moreover, everyone conveniently justifies his articulate scorn. Even the friend whose intelligence he once valued has been transformed by a fussy wife into a withered zombie, proof of the evils of Muscovite marriage. And so to the climax of Jonathan Kent's big, bold and in many ways impressive production, a fashionable party at which malicious gossips mingle with blimps and fools; twittering princesses wobble about the stage like tiny pink blancmanges; and all the guests end up crowded together in a venomous frieze, screeching insults at Firth's Chatsky, exuding his usual earnest charm. 

Perhaps remembering that Griboyedov was suspected of consorting with the Decembrists, and that his play could at first be distributed only in samizdat, Burgess emphasises Chatsky's radical anti-Tsarist sympathies more than he probably should.

He also seeks to show that, in his words, the piece "must always seem topical, since it is about the failed attempt of an intellectual rebel to indent the smug society in which he finds himself. But does that justify Chatsky's denunciations of churchmen who "persist in demonstrating God does not exist" and the prevalence of "vagrants shivering in cardboard boxes"?

To try too strenuously to equate the Russia of 1824 and the Britain of 1993 is to draw attention to the much greater differences. Still, there are moments, especially when a crazed nationalist starts praising a friend's brutish violence, when there may be parallels with Russia 1993. And even when that is not so, Burgess's script makes good, literate listening. How many translators could use a phrase like "debilitous iniellection" one moment, "what the hell" the next, and get away with both? Too few.


The Daily Telegraph, 18 March 1993

The Arts: THEATRE: 
Charles Spencer suffers the woe and wit of Russia's answer to Hamlet

A rare classic without clout 

Critical credibility may be about to go down the plughole, but I must confess that I felt like a bored and rebellious schoolboy during Chatsky at the Almeida Theatre, Islington. 

There is no doubt that this is an important and ambitious production and one, moreover, clearly meant to do us good. The play, completed in 1824 and usually known as Woe from Wit, is by the Russian writer and diplomat Alexander Griboyedov, who suffered the unhappy fate of being torn limb from limb by a group of Islamic fundamentalists at the age of 34.

I'd never heard of either dramatist or drama, but the reference books describe Gore ot Uma as "the first truly classic Russian play", and the central role of Chatsky, the angry, romantic hero, is apparently regarded as the Russian equivalent of Hamlet. 

The Almeida has wheeled out the big guns for this first major English-language production of a neglected masterpiece. Anthony
Burgess has provided the translation, and the small theatre has recruited a cast of 24, including star names and some of our finest character actors. One ought to be grateful, but I found Chatsky very hard going indeed. 

The play is a peculiar combination of romantic sentiment and crude corrosive satire, and they make uneasy bedfellows. Chatsky is a dashing Byronic hero who in Colin Firth's performance spends a lot of time attempting to look soulful and contemptuous at the same time (a tricky task which finally defeats him). 

He has returned to Moscow after three years abroad and is deeply in love with the daughter of Famusov, a reactionary government official. But the sweet and sexy Sophie (Jemma Redgrave, looking achingly lovely in her white nightie) has unwisely fallen for her dad's smarmy creep of a secretary. So Chatsky moons and moans about his love life on the rare occasions when he's not railing against the complacency, philistinism, servility and snobbery of Moscow society. You wish he'd put a sock in it. 

Anthony Burgess bludgeons the audience with rough rhyming couplets. Sometimes the lines are genuinely funny, but there's an unattractively flashy and self-regarding quality to this translation which holds the listener at a distance. 

Jonathan Kent's production, atmospherically designed by Tim Hatley with trompe-l'oeil perspectives and a ballroom scene featuring hundreds of flickering candles, entirely failed to make me care about any of the characters. But the staging does burst into intermittent life in the more satirical scenes. The big ball in the second half is a rich parade of grotesques, a nightmare of snobbery, backbiting and malevolence, with inane giggling princesses rushing around in frocks like pink blancmange, and a rumour spreading like wildfire that Chatsky is actually insane. 

Dinsdale Landen, red-faced and whiskery, as the preposterous father, offers an amazing repertoire of rumbles, roars, harrumphs and honks as he veers between blimpish indignation and craven flattery to those who can help him up the greasy pole. It ought to be a comic tour de force, but so much desperate effort is involved that the laughter dies in your throat. John Fortune offers better value as a wonderfully dim and pompous colonel, and there are sharp caricatures from Jonathan Cullen, Murray Melvin, Rosalind Knight, Bob Goody and David O'Hara. 

But this remains a curiously unengaging play, which expends a lot of energy attacking obvious targets at wearisome length. The sudden explosion of violence in the final scene is clearly meant to make us shiver. All I felt was relief that it was time to go home. 



  
The Guardian, 18 March 1993 

Theatre: Chatsky, Almeida Theatre
By Michael Billington

Watching Alexander Griboyedov's Chatsky at the Almeida, I find it astonishing the work has had to wait so long for a full-scale English production. Quite obviously we are in the presence of a seminal Russian masterpiece: a stinging satire on Tsarist corruption, an obvious precursor of Ostrovksy's Too Clever By Half and Gogol's Government Inspector and a study in the private, Hamletesque anguish of "the superfluous man".

Griboyedov wrote his play before the 1825 Decembrist revolt against Russia's feudal autocracy but it clearly expresses the libertarian spirit. The hero, Chatsky, returns to Moscow after foreign travel, and is appalled by what he sees. On the personal level, he is dismayed to find his childhood sweetheart, Sophie, has fallen for a creepy time-server employed by her civil servant father, Famusov.
And, on the political level, he inveighs against bone-headed officers, petty bureaucrats, social conformists, obscurantist critics and the whole network of repressive stagnation. At a big ball given by Famusov the word goes round that Chatsky is mad. But, in Griboyedov's own words, the comedy contains "25 fools and one sensible man". 

It is a profoundly Russian work in its vision of the outsider railing against society. But it also reminds me strongly of Moliere's The Misanthrope in that Chatsky's fury is partly fuelled by his sexual anguish: the private and the public effortlessly combine as the hero's horror at Sophie's gullibility is elevated into blistering social outrage. Anthony Burgess's translation pushes the parallel even further by its use of the kind of virtuosic rhyming couplets Tony Harrison famously employed in the Moliere. Burgess pummels the ear with puns and conceits so that a dumbo officer, whom Famusov hopes to pair off with Sophie, is characterised as "an empty nut and still they call him Colonel" and prompts Chatsky to ask "How about that other brilliant claimant, that cerebral nullity in army raiment?" This is language sent on a drunken, headlong spree. 

My one cavil about Jonathan Kent's immensely bold production is that the actors often impose a naturalistic rhythm on an artificial form: in the opening scenes, especially, Jemma Redgrave's delicious Sophie and Dinsdale Landen's fiery Famusov duck and weave round the rhymes instead of allowing them to click neatly into place. The words simply need more breathing space as shown by John Fortune's fatuously smiling Colonel, Jonathan Cullen's sinister beetle-like secretary and Murray Melvin's elongated, Daumier cartoon card-sharp. 

But it is Colin Firth who carries the main burden as a superbly tormented Chatsky: combining Alceste's anger with Hamlet's introspection, he makes you feel that the hero's disgust springs from a genuine social and sexual idealism. He dominates a vast cast which Kent deploys with reasonable skill on a brilliant set by Tim Hatley, late of the Gate. Hatley's folding wooden panels open up to reveal a paper-strewn bureaucratic office or a bustling ballroom, where man-hungry princesses bob around like pink balloons. That is part of the overwhelming pleasure of Chatsky: it vividly shows the vanity and pretension that turns its hero into one of drama's classic outsiders. 


Sunday Telegraph, March 21, 1993,

By John Gross

ALEXANDER GRIBOYEDOV'S satirical comedy Woe From Wit is one of the classics of the Russian theatre. 

Would we guess, if all we had to go on was the version which the Almeida Theatre is presenting under the title Chatsky? I think we would - but only just. Written in 1823, the play was promptly banned by the Tsarist authorities and only permitted to take its place in the repertoire some 40 years later. And it is easy enough to see why it gave offence. 

Chatsky, the hero, is partly a figure of his period, a romantic rebel, and partly the eternal plain dealer, determined to call things by their right name. He comes back to Moscow after an absence of three years abroad, doesn't like what he sees, and says so, loud and clear. His particular disenchantment is finding out that Sophie, the girl he loves, has been having a clandestine affair with his father's clerk, a smarmy and unscrupulous careerist. But his rage soon fans out to embrace everything else he dislikes about Moscow society - its snobbery, stupidity, hypocrisy, inane francophilia. 

I must admit that I found the first half of Jonathan Kent's production (which is sponsored by A T & T) somewhat sticky going. This is partly because of two less than satisfactory performances. Jemma Redgrave is simply too nice and too charming as Sophie - something stronger is called for; Dinsdale Lansden, as her father, defeats his own comic ends by spluttering too hard and generally overdoing things. Colin Firth, on the other hand, is an excellent sombre Chatsky; but at this stage we still wonder whether his Byronism isn't a self-regarding pose. 

In the second half, however, we see what he is up against. Sophie's father gives a party: the guests are a wonderful array of grotesques - rogues, humbugs, blimps, battleaxes, squealing adolescent princesses, mournful old wrecks. And though they are funny to start with, they soon become frightening, too, as the rumour that Chatsky is mad gathers force among them. 
There isn't much complexity in the situation - the author is at all times squarely behind Chatsky; but whatever the play lacks in light and shade, it makes up for in power. 
By the end of the evening the guests have become a potential lynch mob, and Chatsky's disgust only deepens when he is presented with an alternative: a drunken acquaintance tries to persuade him to come to a club where unorthodox opinions are debated, but the cure sounds as bad as the disease. 

At its best, the verse translation by Anthony Burgess displays the same kind of comic energy and bite. At other times, it can sound decidedly slapdash - though it would probably have fared better if its deliberate artificiality had been given equal emphasis throughout.


The Sunday Times, 21 March 1993

Intelligentsia test; Performance
By Robert Hewison

Anthony Burgess was right not to use Woe out of Wit as the title for
his ingenious verse translation of Alexander Griboyedov's early
19th-century Russian satire, premiered at the Almeida in Islington, London. 

His alternative to the literal translation, Chatsky, or The Importance
of Being Stupid, is cleverly misleading. It suggests a genial comedy, whereas the piece is darker and more significant.

Comic expectations are raised by Tim Hatley's angular, expressionist set, a wooden box, pierced by flaps and doors, with a steeply raked floor and narrowing walls that create a dramatically false perspective. The overall effect is of the interior of a peep show. 

Jonathan Kent encourages a fiery, whiskered Dinsdale Landen
and a pale, plump John Fortune to create caricatures of an irascible senior civil servant and a Russian Colonel Blimp  respectively. In the ball scene, he manages to cram 23 characters on to the stage, including five roly-poly pink princesses. It is splendid to see Murray Melvin, crisp as a new card, in the pose of a theatre-loving "liberal". 

By convention, comedies end in marriage, and when Colin Firth, as
the tall, saturnine Chatsky, returns from abroad, once more to
declare his love for Jemma Redgrave's rather insipid Sophie, that
seems the predictable outcome. 1820s Moscow is in the grip of
French fever. Chatsky has felt the radicalising effect of the French
enlightenment, but suffers from the ennui that enveloped Europe after the Napoleonic wars. 

The character is based on Griboyedov himself, and we can see in
him a prototype angry young man. He is incapable of being polite to
Moscow's polite society, which responds by deciding that he is mad. 

Contrary to expectations, Sophie rejects Chatsky in favour of the
jumped-up, ambitious archives clerk Molchalin (Jonathan Cullen),
though Molchalin prefers the servant Liza, excellently played by
Minnie Driver. These affairs are discovered by Landen, Sophie's
father and their employer, and the play climaxes with a truly
shocking outburst of cruelty and violence from Landen. 

Though cast as a satire, the play is really about the emergence of a
new force in Russian society: the intelligentsia. The very word is a
Russian coinage that we have taken over into English. But while
British intellectuals have usually been a docile lot, the Russian
intelligentsia has been alienated and subversive. These new
figures are represented by Chatsky, and by his drunken friend
Repetilov, given a bravura performance by David O'Hara. 

By the close, Chatsky appears a Hamlet-like figure. He has
harangued the Frenchified ball guests that "Russia should pursue
the Russian way", but it is plain that there is no enlightenment to be
found in the bureaucratic cynicism and militaristic philistinism of
contemporary Russian life. In a striking stage picture near the
close, Kent has hurt bodies lying in all the corners of the darkened stage. Russia, like Denmark, is a prison. 

Griboyedov didn't live long enough to polish the rough structural
skills shown here, but you can see why the play became such a
popular point of reference in Russia. Burgess and the Almeida have done him proud. 



  
International Herald Tribune, 24 March 1993

Russian Grotesques Trying to Be Clever

by Sheridan Morley 
 

Written in 1824, first staged in 1833 and the biggest hit of the Russian theater ever since, Alexander Griboyedov's satire about the Muscovites of his period and their desperation to be French has never struck good fortune on the British stage, despite various attempts to translate it as "Woe From Wit" or "The Mischief of Being Clever." Now however, to the Almeida comes a brand new Anthony Burgess translation, "Chatsky," which firmly establishes the play as a comic masterpiece somewhere halfway from "The Government Inspector" (written soon after it) back to Moliere. 

On a set consisting largely of hidden doors, the title character reels from salon to salon spreading his return-to-Russian message to the unyielding and unheeding populace.

This agile new production by Jonathan Kent crams two dozen grotesques onto the minuscule stage of the Almeida, led by Dinsdale Landen as the Blimpish old colonel and backed by a team of the best character actors in town including John Fortune, Murray Melvin and Bob Goody. 

But this remains something of a one-joke play, and, as Chatsky himself, Colin Firth has some difficulty explaining to us why the character should have become the Russian Hamlet. True, he has about him a suitably confused, melancholy despair, and he is the only one of the company written or viewed sympathetically: but nothing he ever does, such little as it is, really commands our respect or interest, and there is a sharp clash between the realism of his delineation and the cartoon nature of the caricatures placed around him. 

For all that, Burgess has given us a vibrant, richly Dickensian translation which perfectly captures the mood of the period: it is some reflection of the mood of this period that a rediscovery which ought to have come from the National or the RSC at the Barbican has been left to the Islington fringe. 



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