Thanks to In Review for a lovely write-up of “Tchekov at the House of Special Purpose” – a recent La Mama play in which I played a leading role.
‘Tchekov At The House of Special Purpose’, also known as’ Чехов в доме специального назначения’ in Russian, is a play directed by acclaimed Russian actor Alex Menglet and written by R. Johns. La Mama theatre brings an original and intriguing rework of Tchekov’s play ‘Three Sisters’ that playwright Johns heavily draws inspiration from. Celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, that marks the 25th of October as the ‘Great October Socialist Revolution’, La Mama with Menglet’s expertise in Russian performance art promises an exciting renascence of a young socialist Russia in an early 20th century throwback.
The final days of the last royal family of the Russian Empire, the Romanovs, is narrated throughout this play. When the last Tsar Nicolas II and his family are imprisoned by the Bolshevik forces at the Ipatiev House, also called ‘The House of Special Purpose’, they are left to do nothing but wait and hope of being rescued by the White Army. Spending a total of 78 days locked up with limited freedom, the Romanovs would spend their time putting on plays to comfort them in what would have been a perturbing time for the family. The Romanov daughters in particular were enthusiastic about writing and performing their own original plays. They would dress up and use whatever props were at their disposal to put on shows.
We are first introduced to the Romanov family as they pose for a family portrait. Nicolas II, a dethroned and disgraced Emperor, his wife Alexandra Feodorovna and their four daughters Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia all give melancholic stares to the audience, opening the show with a premonition of tragedy. The real Romanov family also had a son, Alexei, but Johns had Tchekov’s ‘Three Sisters’ in mind when writing the script for ‘The House of Special Purpose’, as there has been a long-time comparison made between the three sisters in Tchekov’s play and the real lives of the four Romanov daughters. Fatalistic romances with military men, young deaths and once promising futures tragically dashed away by cruel fate are all common stories shared by both Tchekov’s Prozorova sisters and the Romanov sisters. The family were also naturally fans of Tchekov’s work and would perform his plays in The House of Special Purpose.
The youngest Romanov sister, Anastasia, is vibrant and high-spirited despite her bleak circumstances. Her dreams of becoming a great actress keep her alive and hopeful. She is adamant about putting on a wonderful play and transforming their prison into a grand stage, as they had previously been allowed within the 77 days of incarceration. However, this time their captives inform the imperial family that they are to remain, under strict orders, to sit still until otherwise instructed. The social revolution that had brought upon a raging civil war between the Red Army-the Bolsheviks- and the White Army-sympathetic monarchists- had escalated to a critical point where the Bolsheviks now had total control of Moscow. The Bolshevik soldiers that were guarding them under strict surveillance were also feeling the heat from higher ranking officers to ensure that the imperial family were not given any special treatment or conspiring to make an escape.
Tension builds as the Bolshevik guard in charge, whom use to be a domestic servant of the royal palace, begins to feel nostalgic towards the Grand Duchesses’ Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia which is brought to the attention of higher authorities, potentially endangering her own life. One of the sisters, Maria, becomes star-crossed lovers with the youngest guard Ivan who is conflicted between his loyalties to the Russian socialists and his natural enemy; the young duchess of the monarchical family. Soon enough their romance is discovered by an outraged Tsarina Alexandra and the wrathful Bolsheviks. Maria is merely given the cold shoulder by her family while Ivan faces a harsher consequence; being shipped off to the front-line of the war essentially sealing his fate. To the young women there is still romance and hope as Maria remains wishful she will see Ivan again and the other sisters await rescue from the White Army that never comes. An ever optimistic Anastasia still attempts to put on her play in a desire to boost the morale of her family unaware that she would never take the stage again.
Nicolas II and his wife Alexandra tell another version of the story that is direr and more harrowing than that of their daughters. Nicolas II is seen crestfallen, crownless and a shell of a man. Wearing nothing but his dirty pyjamas he moves dejectedly around the stage and makes nothing but small talk and a few jokes here and there to appease his children. He does not aspire like the rest of his family to escape, as he knows deep down in his heart that their situation is grim. Alexandra is often seen frantically entering and leaving the stage. Her health and spirits suffer dramatically and she refuses to let go of her royal status and is in denial that their empire has been effectively overthrown by the revolutionists. She treats the Bolshevik guards as though they are beneath her and still maintains the class distinction between her family and the common people. The juxtaposition of the children’s hopeful fancies of a life outside of Russia and their parent’s fears of an impending execution is cleverly thought out and quite macabre.
The audience is frequently dragged back and forth between light-hearted antics, thrills of a Romeo and Juliet’s style romance with the realities of war and a riotous revolution seeking the complete abolition of the Russian monarch. The realistic sounds of guns and bombs are unsettling as they fill the room and expose the viewers, through auditory stimulation, to the destruction and violence of war. The lighting is low providing a gloomy atmosphere which is further accentuated by the relatively bare stage that has but a few props; trunks, pillows and blankets. The stage is drab and plain but that only serves to emphasis the miserable conditions that the Romanovs would have been living in. Food and water plays a huge role in demonstrating the little rations the family were being given, most of which was forcefully taken from the Bolshevik guards. Vodka is also frequently consumed as the guards drink away their own anxieties and fears, showcasing that the Red Army are not necessarily kind to their own supporters.
The acting was reasonably good with the highlights being Milijana Cancar as the Bolshevik guard in charge and Asleen Mauthoor as Anastasia Romanov. The costumes by Michael Mumford were well-done displaying adequate historical accuracy. The all-encompassing whiteness of the wardrobe really corresponded well with the darkness of the play’s theme and the eventual brutal execution of the Romanov family. The performance is concluded with the family once again taking a photograph, posing expressionlessly, then with the lights suddenly going out, leaving the audience to wait apprehensively in the darkness listening to a gun shoot, reload and shoot again repeatedly. An air of mourning filled the theatre as the audience were all initially led to believe that there was a chance that the Romanovs could have been rescued by the White Army or to be shown mercy by the Bolsheviks and forced into exile instead. The last scene stifled all faith in a happy ending for the last royal family of Russia and left everyone with a performance that was memorable due to the sheer morbidity of it. The morbidity that stems from the fact that play is based off true historical events which makes it all the more disconcerting.
‘Tchekov At The House of Special Purpose’ is an enjoyable and well-directed play which would excite anyone with an appetite for history or a period drama. Though the stage was humble and the special effects limited, the performances were definitely impressionable. The show did require the audience to have some existing knowledge of the Russian Revolution and of the infamous imprisonment and execution of the last royal family of Russia. It is a play that has niched itself in some respect. Nonetheless, it was an immersive anachronistic experience that was able to really take people into The House of Special Purpose and formally invite them to live the last few days of the Imperial family.