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Theatre Review: Donka: A Letter to Chekhov
Theatre Review: Donka: A Letter to Chekhov

Donka: A Letter to Chekhov

Teatro Sunil

His Majesty's Theatre

There are times in Teatro Sunil's exquisite Donka: A Letter to Chekhov when you can feel your heart literally rise in your chest.

Sometimes it's because of the sleight of hand and body conjured up by writer and director Daniele Finzi Pasca and his troupe of staggeringly talented acrobats/actors/clowns/ musicians.

Sometimes it's in response to the glorious music - performed live or pre-recorded - of Maria Bonzanigo.

Sometimes it's the sheer beauty of the thing - the curtains and screens outrageously illuminated by Hugo Gargiulo; the linen, silk and tulle of Giovanna Buzzi's gorgeous costumes.

Often it's all of these, combined in service of Finzi Pasca's light-as- air inspiration to create as funny, free and beautiful a piece of theatrical entertainment as you will ever see.

Finzi Pasca's idea is clear from Donka's subtitle - it's a letter not from but TO Chekhov; the response of a modern imagination to the great Russian playwright and storyteller.

Students of Chekhov's oeuvre will enjoy the textual allusions, famous or obscure.

For the biographically minded, the writer's other career as a doctor is there, his struggle with and death from tuberculosis also. The ceremonies of blood and drawn curtains, the purity of ice and white light, infuse the play.

But don't be under the misapprehension that this is fundamentally a literary or scholarly work. Far from it.

Rather, it's a riot of circus magic and mischief with a very modern idiom and sensibility. Finzi Pasca's stated aim is to look for light-heartedness on stage and, in Donka, he has uncovered a motherlode.

The play opens surprisingly, with two characters on a bare stage holding portable light boxes and bantering in broken English about the story of a Russian nobleman who built a castle by the lake at Lugano, Finzi Pasca's Swiss home town and the base of his theatre company. It's light, charming stuff, setting the mood of the adventure ahead while, just for a moment, keeping its marvels concealed.

Then the curtain behind them explodes in psychedelic swirls of colour, the music swells and a wonderful parade of characters in silhouette grows and shrinks as if by magic, and we are away.

Over the next two hours, that magic never ceases. Three girls on a swing high above the stage squabble prettily and dangerously over the best seat; a woman somehow ice-skates on a plain stage; an endless crimson ribbon falls from the sky and becomes a man's unstaunchable wound.

Lovers entwine impossibly on a bed, two acrobats enact a gravity-defying duet lying on the stage, and their efforts are magically and hilariously transformed from the horizontal to the vertical.

A mortal duel turns into a riotous water fight, a juggler balances six balls on his body while his colleagues provide an a cappella doo wop soundtrack.

Rose petals fly, ice flies, water flies, jokes and bodies fly. Finzi Pasca achieves his ambition - a show as light as air.

The show's eight performers, from Italy, Germany, Brazil, Canada and Mexico, are spellbinding, with David Menes' muscular impishness and Sara Calvanelli's ravishing accordion and vocals especially noteworthy.

The comparison with the all-conquering Cirque du Soleil is inevitable here, and Donka certainly shares that franchise's quirky glamour and appeal. But Donka has more strings to its bow and delivers on a far more intimate level. It engages more disciplines and takes advantage of more emotional opportunities.

By the time you read this, the jungle drums will have caused a stampede for the remaining tickets to this spectacular Festival show. I sincerely urge you to join it without an instant's delay.

Donka: A Letter to Chekhov runs until February 19.