Written in 1889, the play is only now receiving its West End debut. This is Chekhov’s second full length play, after ‘Ivanov’, and was not very successful when first performed. Chekhov himself is reported to have not liked the play and thus banned it from being produced again. However it is thought he used this play has a kind of blueprint for the later ‘Uncle Vanya’.
This entwined story concerns many characters, which is very complex to write down, but here goes. There is ‘Sasha’ a retired professor who is married to his second and much younger wife ‘Yelena’. The professor moans a lot about his health and his age and is quite boring. Yelena no longer loves him, but feels trapped with nowhere to go. To make matters worse she has desires on a young landowner, nicknamed the ‘The Wood Demon ‘, a liberal, who has a degree in medicine, but who hates the aristocrats and fights to save the trees and country side from being destroyed . However, he does not desire Yelena, instead he desires ‘Sonya’, Yelena's step daughter!
In the meantinme, ‘Sonya’ is being pested by ‘Lyonya’, a wealthy neighbour who is rather dull. Meanwhile, Lyonya’s sister has feelings for ‘Fedya’ the son of ‘Godfather’, a land owner who is a great friend of the professor’s. However, ‘Fedya’ has his eyes on ‘Yelena’! Then there is the professor’s first wife’s brother, ‘Zhorzh’, he too has desires for ‘Yelena’.
As you can see the scene is set for many mishaps and deceptions in this story which sounds complicated, but it is really quite easy to follow with a focus by Chekhov on how miserable everyone is, and what they should do to be happy.
Well, I found it all a bit too much to tell the truth. The play lacks depth and at times it feels embarrassingly dated and tacky. What was Chekhov trying to say in this play? Don’t stay in an unhappy relationship? Say what you think and don’t hold back? Consider both sides of an argument before making a judgement? Love conquers all? Well I don’t know, but then I never do with Chekhov who is certainly not my favourite playwright!
Yet again as so often, most of the acting is marvellous which saves this play from being a complete failure. There are notable performances from Philip Voss as ‘ Sasha, the professor, Brian Protheroe as ‘Zhorzh’ , Adam Godley as ‘Fyodor’ and Amanda Ryan as ‘Sonya’. However, I was not too impressed with Cal Macaninch as ‘The Wood Demon’. He did not come across convincingly at all, his acting was a little ‘wooden’ as was Abigail Cruttenden’s as ‘Yelena’. But then it is probably the lines they have to say that makes their performance this way!
‘The Wood Demon “has received some mixed notices from the popular press. JOHN GROSS of THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says "The Wood Demon still has a good deal more than historical interest to recommend it, standing as a fresh, attractive play in its own right." However, CHARLES SPENCER of the same newspaper says "this is one for Chekhov completists only." This is echoed a little by JANE EDWARDES of TIME OUT who says " This is a brave venture in the newly restored theatre, and one that won't only appeal to completists. "NICHOLAS DE JONGH of THE EVENING STANDARD describes the play as a "dullish production" and goes on to say the production is "thin on atmosphere." PETER HEPPLE of THE STAGE was a little disappointed with the show saying it is a " muddled, rambling play, with a tacked-on happy ending" and goes on to remark " Anthony Clark could have achieved a more sparkling production than this lack-lustra affair."
‘The Wood Demon’ is presently booking to October, I personally cannot see it lasting this long. There were only around 50 people in the auditorium, a poor turnout even for a Tuesday evening, which is traditionally a small house. This is not a good start for Patrick Sulauiman who has recently purchased the Playhouse theatre and refurbished it and is putting on his own productions. Another unsuccesful play like the‘Wood Demon’ and the doors of the Playhouse will soon be closing for good. Theatre is a very risky business!!