Taking A Wild Punt On Chekhov

A performer's view on the attractions and challenges of staging the first amateur Scottish production of a little-known Chekhov play. Picture: Edinburgh Graduate Theatre Group's Wild Honey

This week affords theatre-goers in Scotland their first chance to see a dark comedy from the combined pen of two of the world’s most acclaimed playwrights.

Wild Honey is Michael Frayn’s adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s first, untitled play. Discovered posthumously in 1923, and
known by several different titles in a number of productions around the world, it
was not until the mid-1980s that it was given its most audience-friendly form
by Frayn.

The result is a curious, but entertaining play that takes the sharp
flavours of melodrama and farce and then simmers them down into an intoxicating
melange of low morals and way too much vodka.

The challenge

Edinburgh Graduate Theatre Group (EGTG) is an amateur outfit, founded
in 1954, which has earned a reputation for offering high-quality
productions of classic and cutting-edge theatre.

Just this year it won a commendation in the newly-reinstated Edinburgh Evening News Drama Awards for
Fringe production Tiny Dynamite, which critic Thom Dibdin described as
possessing "electric performances in a highly-charged show."

My director Wendy Mathison also helmed the group’s hugely
successful production of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia in 2005, and says that the
decision to stage Wild Honey was driven largely by curiosity about the play

Bringing such an early work by Chekhov to life on stage, albeit via the
prism of Frayn’s re-visioning, is an exciting challenge. The play, which
features steam trains, presents intriguing issues about staging,
especially on a budget. No doubt, that's one significant reason why it is so
rarely staged.

The rest of the company are also eager to challenge
themselves in this production. The large cast of thirteen comprises nine men and four women (self included). Ages range from early 20s to
early 80s and day-jobs from corporate lawyer to shop assistant.

As ever with
amateur companies, it’s simply the love of theatre that keeps us all turning
up to rehearsals three times a week throughout the dark winter nights, but the
buzz of performing more than makes up for a couple of months of swapping proper
dinners for a sub or a KitKat grabbed between the office and the rehearsal


As for the practicalities of mounting a production such as Wild Honey, a longrunning group such as EGTG obviously has a wealth of
experience and contacts on which it can draw. However, it still takes a lot
of dedication, commitment – and cold, hard cash – to bring it all together on
the night.

It begins with set design. And then someone has to build it.
Costs for that run to several hundred pounds. Lighting and sound are usually
manned on a voluntary basis, but equipment may have to be hired in, which can
add a couple of hundred more pounds.

Props and costumes are sourced either from the actors
themselves or from the EGTG store, which is a treasure-trove of period outfits
and set-dressing paraphernalia.

Performing rights fees are, of course, payable
to the playwright via the licensee, Samuel French, and these are a few hundred
pounds. Actors pay for their own scripts, via the company.

Flyers and posters
run to another hundred pounds or so. Rehearsal space is provided by Edinburgh
University and programmes and refreshments are provided by non-performing
members of the group.

All of this is coordinated by the general manager but,
like all theatre, whether amateur or professional, it is at heart a fantastic
team effort from beginning to end.

By far the single biggest cost, however, is venue hire.
Since EGTG is associated with Edinburgh University, it has always used the
university’s Adam House Theatre in Chambers Street. This is a very longstanding
venue for amateur theatre in Edinburgh, and is therefore one of those rare
Fringe venues that sees productions on its boards most weeks of the year.

As a
space, it seats about 160 and has a proscenium-arch stage with extensive wings
and good dressing rooms. The upholstery is a little threadbare, but it’s
a comfortable and well-proportioned theatre which offers audiences good
acoustics and excellent sightlines.

Edinburgh is often (and rightly) criticised for not
supporting much of a "fringe" theatre scene outside of those famous three weeks
in August, yet there is nevertheless some intriguing amateur theatre being offered
all year round. The best of it is, of course, done to a very high standard
indeed, and can sometimes take a risk on offering plays that the commercial
theatre just cannot afford to do. One such is EGTG’s Wild Honey, so do try
and catch it if you can.

Lorraine McCann plays Sasha, Platonov's long-suffering wife
in Wild Honey.

The show runs 14 - 17 November 2007 at 7.30 pm at Adam House Theatre, Chambers Street, Edinburgh. Tickets are £9 (£7), available on the door.