Preview: The Duel, EICC, Edinburgh

Chekhov Brazilian style

A three-hour long Chekhov production from Brazil could be one of the hit shows of this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, writes Mark Brown

“The word ‘Brazil’ means burning embers”, says theatre director Georgette Fadel. “We Brazilians believe in that potency, that heat and fire that can burn away the negative elements in our lives. It is a particularly important idea for the Brazilian theatre.”

This vivid concept, Fadel explains, is very much part of her acclaimed staging of Chekhov’s novella, The Duel. Her production, which transfers to the Edinburgh Fringe following a successful run at the Avignon festival in France, was created for the ironically named Mundana Companhia (Mundane Company) of São Paulo.

The director and her cast of eight actors and one musician come to Edinburgh well aware of the commercial imperatives of a Fringe which seems increasingly to be dominated by short shows tailored to a market of rapid artistic consumption. “We like to stand against the tide of commercialism”, she says, as she explains why Mundana are bringing a three-hour long Chekhov adaptation, performed in Portuguese with English surtitles, for an 18-day residency at the EICC venue.The Duel

There is something refreshingly “old school Fringe” about the Brazilians’ uncompromising approach to their art. Like the old days when Richard Demarco would bring over avant-garde work from eastern Europe, confident that there were enough curious sophisticates among the Fringe-going public to provide an audience, Mundana come to Scotland in the optimistic belief that Edinburgh, like Avignon, is still a happy hunting ground for serious artists.

The Chekhov story they have chosen is an intriguing one, somewhat at odds with the plays that we are accustomed to. Adapted for film by Dover Kosashvili in 2010, The Duel has two parallel narratives, both involving the rather dissolute romantic Laevsky.

In one plot line, Laevsky and his lover Nadya have left Moscow for a Black Sea resort which has seen better days. Laevsky has secretly fallen out of love with Nadya, who is married to another man. The couple’s unconventional relationship is a source of some consternation in the town.

The other narrative strand sees Laevsky brought into conflict with the social Darwinist scientist Von Koren, who despises Laevsky’s degeneracy. As the novella’s title suggests, this leads to the two men agreeing, in an absurd moment of outdated chivalry, to a duel.

Speaking to me from São Paulo, Fadel remembers that, when she was invited to direct the piece for Mundana Companhia, she was surprised by Chekhov’s story. “When I read the novella, I realised it was something really special in Chekhov’s oeuvre. The end, in particular, is surprising in comparison with his other plays and prose fictions. The conclusion has an almost naive optimism, a leap into the possibility of an understanding between Laevsky  and Von Koren.

“It was a really dangerous text”, she continues, “because it could be considered very naive in relation to the Brazilian situation. It might seem to suggest an almost childishly simple way of pacifying a situation of social conflict, or it could point to more complex discussions.”

The “Brazilian situation” to which Fadel alludes is the political movement which erupted in Brazil in 2013 during the Confederations Cup in protest at perceived corruption and neglect of the country’s poor in the preparations for this year’s World Cup. “We were living in a very particular moment in the social and political history of Brazil”, the director says. “I saw in Chekhov’s story a lot of similarities and a lot of dialogue with the moment we were living in.”

If the political and philosophical clash of ideas in Chekhov’s novella seemed to chime with recent events in Brazil, to what extent does such a quintessentially Russian writer fit with the energy and sensuality we, in Europe, associate with Brazilian culture? “I think the Edinburgh audiences will see particularly Brazilian elements in the aesthetic of the show”, says the director. “But let’s not forget it’s a Chekhov.

“We are trying to convey the poetry of his text, not somehow in a typically ‘Chekhovian’ way, but we are showing respect to the poetry. We recognise that Chekhov had an important dialogue with his times. We love Chekhov’s work because it offers an important basis to work with our own times.”

That said, Fadel emphasises, a Brazilian performance of Chekhov, not matter how respectful of the Russian author, is never going to be like the almost reverential productions we see in the UK. “Our actors in this production have a special energy”, she says, “so this is a Chekhov with a special sense of festivity.”

One of those actors, Camila Pitanga (who plays the role of Nadya), is famous in Brazil for playing a character in one of the country’s most popular telenovelas. Imagine Coronation Street’s Michelle Keegan popping up in a stage play by Arthur Miller or Tom Stoppard, and you have a pretty accurate equivalent. The fact that Pitanga is unknown here in Scotland only adds to Mundana’s interest in bringing the play to Edinburgh.

“Brazil is made up of so many cultural influences”, Fadel comments, “from indigenous peoples, to Portuguese, English, Italian, Japanese and so on. Consequently, for us, as artists, taking our work out of Brazil into the world is another way of recognising ourselves. It is a way of getting in touch with Brazil’s roots, even though European audiences are really different from Brazilian audiences.”

The Duel is at the EICC, Edinburgh, August 5 to 23. For more information, visit: eicc.co.uk/entertainment

This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on August 3, 2014

© Mark Brown

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