Published on April 7th, 2014 | by Liz Allum0
The Russian Doctor – Andrew Dawson
A select few were lucky enough to see a preview performance of Andrew Dawson’s latest show The Russian Doctor, retelling extracts from Chekov’s only work of non-fiction, Sakhalin Island.
A constant and bleak place, this isolated island formed a prison for ‘vagabonds’ and criminals. Chekov visited to interview prisoners and settlers for a census, in 1890 and found extreme poverty, infectious diseases rife, forced prostitution and barbaric treatment by authorities. Men and women, mostly the poorest in their communities, were forced to walk for three years to reach this desolate and distant place. When they arrived, they found themselves confined to hard labour, permanently chained to wheelbarrows, or simply living out their days completing menial task after menial task.
Considering the setting, we were not expecting laughs or the witty physical comedy at which Andrew Dawson is so adept. Instead, we were presented with what felt like an archive, much like the museum that stands on the island, full of delicately preserved and unearthed stories, histories and memories.
The piece was cinematic in quality, with layered projection screens, epic cinematic music, and montages of seamless movement and contemporary physical theatre. Dawson, in a meticulously created, but dusty and forgotten space, represents elements of the text, the movements of the prisoners bodies as they embark on this epic walk, the physicality of being chained up, the moments of freedom, a wedding, a death, a hanging.
As with all of Andrew Dawson’s work, his every movement is perfectly considered, and the emotions he expresses are both immense, and yet gentle. Chekov observed the people here through his medical eyes, in detail and in honesty, and Dawson’s reflection of this text has a similar, but softer tone. An honest representation, through a lens of movement and image. This is what gives it its documentary, yet epic cinematic quality, and whisks the audience away, into the world, both as participant and observer.
From inside a pile of wood chip Dawson unearths medical record cards, pages from the census, each perhaps containing a prisoner’s story, as the audio narrative describes people whose surnames are recorded as Noname and Don’tknow, people on the brink of being forgotten forever. Echoes of social injustice are touched upon, but never brought fully into focus. The bleak landscape seems to flatten, and envelop any real comment on the stories, or any harsh drawing out of deliberate sentiment.
Some of the audio quality is not as perfect as the rest of the piece, and at times the piece feels slow, but the continuous, slow pace really reflects the nature of the island and the only kind of life that could have been lived there for those prisoners. Moments of humour are found even here, and they twinkle brightly against the desolation like light on water.
It is hugely refreshing to see a text such as this given due credit and performed in a contemporary, original, visual and genuinely engaging way. This was a rare chance to see a work in progress, and yet another world class addition to the programme at South Street Arts Centre and I am looking forward to The Russian Doctor’s return as a finished piece.