I saw my first Chekhov at the age of fifteen – Three Sisters, directed by Jonathan Miller – and I was hooked. I saw Jonathan Miller in the bar but was too shy to say hello – and to be fair he didn’t look like he’d welcome an approach, as he looked like he was having a thoroughly miserable time. As a result, I asked for the Penguin edition of the Complete Chekhov as part of my sixteenth birthday present, and I read it avidly. I even recall hiding away in the locker room at school during break so that I could get Uncle Vanya finished.
So, the prospect of a full day of Chekhov was perhaps a little bit of a hard sell to Mrs Chrisparkle, although I was keen as mustard. Three plays in one day: 10.30 am, 3 pm, 7.30pm. I think she equated it with the heaviest possible day at the Edinburgh Fringe; the very thought of it made her exhausted. Still, I lured her with the prospect of lunch at the Minerva Brasserie and a gluten-free fry up breakfast at Spires’ on Sunday. She caved in. Less than half an hour into the first play and I could already tell she was loving it – and by the time we came to late night dinner at Cote, twelve hours later, she was adamant that she had been looking forward to it all along. Because I’m delighted to tell you, gentle reader, that these three plays, produced in old fashioned rep style at the Festival Theatre (all three on a Saturday) are a rare treat indeed. We’d seen the Ian McKellen production of The Seagull back in 2008 but couldn’t remember much about it because it was on New Year’s Day, we were frankly knackered, and had our eyes shut for most of the time (as did much of the audience). I’d seen Michael Frayn’s version of Platonov, Wild Honey, at the National in 1985, but hadn’t realised it was the same play. And although I’d read Ivanov all those years ago, neither of us had ever seen it, so this was a perfect opportunity to get up to date and immerse oneself in the output of the Young Chekhov. And the plays, the productions and the performances are without exception absolutely stunning.
By the time The Seagull had reached the stage, Chekhov was 36 years old; and given that he would die just eight years later of tuberculosis, it’s perhaps misleading to consider it the work of the “Young Chekhov”. Nevertheless, it’s still a good halfway point in his career to consider what went before as his earlier attempts and what followed as the more mature writer. The texts have been adapted by David Hare, who insists in his introduction that these are three completely individual plays that deserve to be considered individually and not just looked at as some kind of blur and a mere source for the themes that Chekhov would develop more fully in his later plays. Fair enough. However. When you watch all three on the same day; in the same theatre, with the same set, the same lighting, the same director, and many of the actors appear in two or even all three of the plays, it comes across as one big project – a theatrical vision that encourages the audience to make thematic comparisons. I was struck, for example, how, structurally, each of the three plays started in the same way. First, there would be a conversation between two people on stage, which would shortly be interrupted by another two people, of whom the more senior of the two continues a conversation they were already having offstage, and the two people already on stage join in with their conversation. Similarly, use of the same actor to portray similar characters emphasises how Chekhov frequently employs a “type” in his plays – the impoverished schoolteacher, the doctor, the uncle, the landowner, the merchant, the writer, the frumpy female relative, and, of course, the old retainer. Chuck in some actors and some military men and you have a smorgasbord of Russian characters that Chekhov could mix and match to create village life – a microcosm that reflects the macrocosm of Russia in its entirety.
The Seagull is quite frequently performed; Ivanov, less so; Platonov, rarely. So it is a delight to have a chance to see that very early play in this riveting production. There are differences of opinion as to how old Chekhov was when he wrote it; anything between 17 and 20. What is certain is that it was not performed in his lifetime – he wrote it for the rising star Maria Yermolova, who rejected it out of hand – and the manuscript that remained was rambling, unedited, and hugely long. David Hare has done an incredible job in creating a really full and vivid play out of these ashes. Many of the usual Chekhovian themes are there, but what really makes it stand out in comparison with the rest of his work is the comedy element. Ayckbourn has been likened to Chekhov for his observations of family life and his ability to juggle hilarity and tragedy in the same sentence. You’d have to go back over a hundred years to Richard Brinsley Sheridan, to find as many laugh out loud moments in a play as you find in the third act of Platonov; and I noticed several instances throughout the entire day when Chekhov gave us a comic twist to a tragic situation and I thought: “that’s Ayckbourn all over”. Platonov himself is a truly Ayckbournian creation – like Norman, in The Norman Conquests, attractive to women beyond all reasonable expectations without going out of his way to pursue them; just being playfully irreverent, primarily taking care of himself at the expense of others, wheedling his way out of awkward situations, loving others but not as much as he loves himself.
There is a lot of comedy in Platonov, some in Ivanov (mainly from the card-playing, food and drink-hunting guests of the Lebedevs), but precious little in The Seagull. At least sixteen years pass between them – Platonov was written circa 1880, Ivanov in 1887, and The Seagull in 1896, so he wasn’t exactly bashing out these full length plays in a frenzy. The level of comedy declines over the years, in the same ways as does his use of soliloquies. Platonov is full of characters proclaiming their confessional monologues alone on stage. However, there are just two such occurrences in both Ivanov and The Seagull, as Chekhov learned more subtle ways of revealing the inner self of his characters.
In all the plays, the characters seem completely affected by the weather – they’re either suffering from the stifling and oppressive heat, or they’re hiding from the damp air in the evening for the sake of their health. Being Russian, they’re martyrs to their alcohol, perhaps the one unifying source of comfort in the three plays and one that inevitably gives rise to some humour. But additionally you really get an understanding of how the ubiquitous vodka is used to bring all parts of society together – it’s just something that everyone understands and appreciates. All the plays deal with the subject of acting, and thus create an argument between artifice and reality, whether it’s by actually having actors as characters (like Arkadina and Nina in The Seagull), or by Nikolai’s taunting of Platonov that he doesn’t actually feel anything and any sentiment he offers is “just acting”; or Ivanov seeing himself as a Hamlet character.
You can see the roots of Chekhov’s theme that “life will always be better elsewhere”, which culminates in the Three Sisters’ desperate need to return to Moscow, with Glagolyev joining his dreadful son in Paris to enjoy life whilst he still can, and with Arkadina escaping back to Moscow to rid herself of irksome family ties. Naturally, the subject of loyalty and adultery are never far from Chekhov’s nib, and whenever there’s a revolver lying around, you just know there’ll be murder or suicide, committed by someone with what we would call today Mental Health issues, driven to distraction by the world around them.
But what of these productions? As I said earlier – they are stunning. Tom Pye’s set has enough individuality to reflect the differences between the plays but also enough unifying features to make it clearly all part of one endeavour. The great central space at the Festival theatre is given over to the garden for outside scenes and living rooms/studies for indoor scenes, with a useful two storey building on one side and a forest clearing on the other. I loved the use of the divider that sprang up from down below to create the back wall of Platonov’s schoolroom or Ivanov’s study; and the additional features that come into their own for each play – the lonely train track in Platonov, the front of stage river bank in Ivanov, the back of stage lake shore in The Seagull, all add some realistic magic to the proceedings. Mark Henderson’s evocative lighting also had many high impact moments, none perhaps as memorable as the silhouette of Ivanov at the back of the stage near the end of the play, providing us with a visual representation of what a loner he was. David Hare’s words bring Chekhov’s originals to superb, natural life – including the use of antisemitism shown by the characters in Ivanov, which still has the power to shock – the audience’s gasps were palpable.
And how about the performances? Equally stunning. A handful of actors appear in just one of the plays, several appear in two, and four absolute stalwarts appear in all three. Each play relies highly on a strong sense of ensemble performance, even though Platonov and Ivanov have eponymous characters at the centre of the action. James McArdle is a brilliant Platonov, quirky, confident, daring, and still essentially a louse – yet you can’t help liking him. You know that old saying that, deep down, women always prefer the bad boys? He’s proof positive of that. And he’s virtually unrecognisable as Doctor Lvov in Ivanov; soberly dressed, clean shaven, decent and moral – the complete opposite of the rather reprehensible schoolteacher. You can’t imagine a smile ever crossing his lips. His Anna Petrovna (in both plays, so Chekhov really must have liked the name) is Nina Sosanya. In Platonov, she’s splendidly gung-ho about not giving a damn about her debts and with a distinct charm that causes men to fall in love with her – a very strong performance of a strong character. In Ivanov, again it’s an opposite type of portrayal – in frail health, but still resolute of spirit and looking for the good in life, until her husband, piqued with cruelty and mental fragility, blurts out her hopeless prognosis.
Joshua James gives two excellent performances – I particularly liked him in Platonov, as the rather useless young doctor Nikolai, constantly teasing and sniping at the world, and especially at Platonov himself. The administering water scene at the end of the play was one of the best comedy-in-tragedy moments I’ve ever seen. As the troubled Konstantin in The Seagull, he is very effective as the young pup trying to assert himself in a household of patronising superiors, and at the end of the play, his neat and deliberate destruction of his papers was very moving (and much more suitable to the character, unlike Chekhov’s original stage directions which say he just throws them under the table). Elsewhere Platonov is studded with top quality performances – Jonathan Coy as the courtly failure Porfiri, and Mark Donald, totally vile as his spoilt, cruel son Kiril – a performance more memorable than you might have thought the role normally receives. There’s a wonderfully bright and hopeful Sergei played by Pip Carter, who becomes devastated when he discovers the truth about Platonov; he’s equally good in The Seagull as Medvedenko, where he brings out all the character’s pathetic, kick-me-I’m-a-puppy qualities.
Taking a couple of the smaller roles, Nicholas Day steals the first act of Platonov with a wonderfully warm and strangely outrageous performance as Ivan; and Sarah Twomey is brilliant as Maria Grekova who can’t bear to be kissed, a nerdy porcelain doll whom Platonov simply regards as a challenge. There’s a strong, threatening performance by Des McAleer as Osip – I loved his performances in the other plays too – and a wide-eyed enthusiastic performance by Olivia Vinall (another of the three-play stalwarts) as Sofya.
Samuel West leads the cast of Ivanov, wonderfully convincing as the self-obsessed, mentally unstable, cruel title character, almost visibly being eaten up by the black dog as he either retreats into inner nothingness or lashes out at those who care about him. I also enjoyed his rather self-effacing Trigorin in The Seagull, flattered by Nina’s attentions, overwhelmed by Arkadina’s, quietly feathering his own nest and just immune to the feelings of others – their feelings and emotions are mere words for him to write down in his notebook and use for his own benefit. Peter Egan gives two rumbustious performances as Shabyelski in Ivanov, and Sorin in The Seagull, and Lucy Briers is brilliant as the ghastly Zinaida in Ivanov, for whom money is everything; when Ivanov asks for a deferment of the loan she reacts as if he’d suggested a threesome with Putin. She also excels in the role of Polina in The Seagull, idly longing to run away with the Doctor, but saddled with her family commitments – and the appalling way she rejected her son-in-law’s goodbye kiss was worth the ticket cost alone. In addition, I have to mention the delightful performances of Emma Amos, showing how beautifully shallow Marfusha Babakina is; and of Beverley Klein, strutting her stuff as the redoubtable Avdotya with great comic timing.
And of course, there’s Anna Chancellor as Irina Arkadina, the actress who acts her emotions rather than feels them, who undermines her son’s attempts to impress and fit in, who rides roughshod over the feelings of others and does it all with charm and grace, although you never know when’s she might turn into a cobra and attack. But the whole cast of all three plays don’t put a foot wrong and everyone gives their very best to create these three insights into 19th century Russian society.
One of the most exciting, stimulating and revealing days of theatre I have ever enjoyed. A splendid vision, splendidly realised. The Young Chekhov season ends on 14th November, but there’s no way this remarkable experience should finish there. Surely the West End awaits?
Production photographs taken from the Chichester Theatre website