Wild Honey by Michael Frayn, adapted from Platonov by Anton Chekhov

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BBC Radio 7, 1 February 2010
Is Wild Honey an Anton Chekhov play or a Michael Frayn play? Well, it's obviously a hybrid in that Frayn has taken the teenage Russian's nameless play (which in the past has been given the title Platonov, after its main character - most notably in the Royal Court production of 1960 starring Rex Harrison), and reduced it from a six hour-running time into a two-hour slot.
What I heard in this 1989 production, broadcast as part of the BBCs celebrating of the 150th year of Chekhov's birth, was certainly something close to what British audiences might expect of him. The comedy of the early short farces has been adeptly combined with the tragi-comic aspects of the mature plays. There are pre-echoes of the later plays but as yet only in embryo form. Platonov himself (Ian McKellen) could be an early Vanya. Anna Petrovna's (Anna Calder Marshall's) closeness to losing her estate because of debts feels like a sketch for The Cherry Orchard. And with so many people on the point of leaving we are close to The three sisters' desire to return to Moscow.

Christopher Morahan's fine, confident production, starring McKellen (repeating his role originally created in the 1984 premiere of Wild Honey at the Royal National Theatre) created a world of its own, at the core of which stood the extraordinary figure of Platonov himself. He was failure writ large, in spite of his social position as a happily married man with the kind of status that encouraged everyone to invite him to their respective social gatherings. He had women falling at his feet, although he persisted in being rude to them all.

McKellen had the unenviable task of making us care for this loser and he did it without undermining the character's weaknesses. This comes through particularly strongly in the final scene when he was sunk in self-pity (and vodka); the black humour of his situation prevented it from being simply a self-indulgent wallow.

The women who fling themselves at him were all very well played, and I understood why they behaved like this; for all his vacillations and rudeness, Platonov was the only vaguely interesting male in this provincial small town. Calder Marshall was flighty and imperious as Anna Petrovna - and played a very convincing drunk scene. The other males of the area, ineffectual to a man, were brought nicely to life by the rest of the large cast. There's also a remarkably effective train sound effect that contributes to the final irony of the ending: despite his reputation, Platonov did not have the courage to end his own life. It was the last shift of tone in a play which revels in its variety.

While this very strong production did not reveal to us a long-lost Chekhov masterpiece (which might help to explain why Wild Honey failed on its Broadway premiere in 1986, only running just over three weeks) but it does give us a good chance to see just how well Michael Frayn has triumphed in making the intractable absorbing and enjoyable.