Written for Whatsonstage.com
It’s fair to say that Caroline Blakiston’s Black Bread and Cucumber is a niche within niche theatre; it is theatre for those not only interested in Chekhov’s plays, but for those prepared to listen to a detailed account of a specific type Chekhovian performance. Comprised of narrative pieces and verbatim excerpts, Black Bread and Cucumber is an autobiographical account of Blakiston’s experience as the first English woman to play Chekhov in Russia in Russian. As the programme tells us, this “is not a play”.
An eminent performer and stalwart of the stage, Blakiston could probably entertain an audience with a story half as interesting as the one she tells in this one-woman show. As she recounts her travels to Russia and her performance of the role of Charlotta in The Cherry Orchard, we meet the actors she worked with, the unhelpful directors, and the strange people on the street. Just as Charlotta, a travelling circus performer, is an outsider in Madam Ranevsky’s house, so Blakiston took her time to discover the warm heart of this cold land.
Blakiston’s story is compelling and she tells it well, but the form the production takes is less convincing. Much of the sound effects she recorded in Russia are played back via a cumbersome tape recorder with a long wire that she carries around. For a piece that calls on members of the audience to close their eyes in order to really imagine Russia in the winter and its bizarre provincial theatres, the visual elements Blakiston provides are often distractions. The interval in this short piece makes it seem lengthy, and suggests that the radio, rather than the stage, may be the more natural and effective medium through for Blakiston to tell her story.
Is there a place for exclusivist theatre?
The commercial potential for a show such as Black Bread and Cucumber is, to say the least, limited. If you like Chekhov then it’s worth watching, but it’s never going to shake up the way you think about his work.
What interests me is why this show has been programmed and why anyone thought it would be a good idea. Chekhov is pretty much my main man, but even I struggled to find the relevance of Blakiston’s show to…well, anything. I tried to imagine how I would react to the piece if I didn’t like Chekhov, if I didn’t know much about him, if Blakiston gave a less good performance, and if it were not autobiographical. I think I would have come out thinking that Black Bread and Cucumber was indulgent, elitist and unnecessary.
Jermyn Street seem to have a penchant for programming shows that will attract a very select kind of audience. I saw a production of Sylvia Plath’s Three Women there a few years ago which had similar problems to Black Bread and Cucumber; written as a radio play by Plath, apparently someone thought it would work better on the stage. It didn’t.
Whilst we should not restrict subject matter on the grounds that it’s niche or not widely known, I am puzzled as to why Jermyn Street is happy to cater for the slimmest of theatre audiences.