I haven’t stopped thinking about Donka: A Letter to Chekov since I saw it last Saturday night. I had never been to Aulnay-sur-Bois, in fact, I had never thought of it as anywhere other than a stop on the way to Charles de Gaulle. I forget that it’s often in these out of the way, difficult to get to suburbs that Paris hosts some of its most exciting experimental theatre. Donka was one of those memorable performances that I would travel much further than Aulnay-sur-Bois to see again and again.
I recently saw Cirque Eloize’s latest production, I.D., at Chaillot, so the genre of the “new circus” — a hybrid form that brings together circus acts, dance, music, spectacular lighting shows and theatre to create a form of contemporary entertainment that integrates high and low forms, appeals to young and old, and leaves its audience mesmerized — is not new to me.
Donka is a letter to Chekov that uses words sparingly. The result being that what is more important than words is what happens between the words, in the tone and the silences of the long Russian summer afternoons, on the boat, in the hospital beds, and drawing rooms that Chekov finds, inhabits, and in which Donka’s performers cavort. For in these spaces, and in the spaces between words, Donka captures the mood (in the French sense of humeur) of Chekov, and all the melancholy and angst of those in his fictions.
Again unlike Chekov’s men and woman who are trapped and limited by the social roles given to them, in Donka, the performers glide between men and women, between doctors, nurses and patients: there is nothing fixed, nothing limited by the forces of language, costume, or social form. There are moments of hilarity, moments of tenderness, struggle, and wonder shared between performers and the children and adults who filled the audience. And neither are the actions and movements, the roles of the body in command of the acts and story vignettes performed. Motions are unfinished, carefully crafted mistakes are made, the actors lose their nerve, clowning around, being gregarious with each other, with themselves, with us. And so, Donka is much more than a series of fragments demonstrating the mind-boggling manoeuvres of the human body. Although there is plenty of that, Donka is a true merging of theatre and circus, in which clowns become servants, patients are transformed into contortionists, the doctor becomes a juggler, and dancers slide effortlessly into their own audience.