Lloyd Evans on why we’ve all be­come hooked on the Rus­sian play­wright

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Stage - The Spec­ta­tor

ONE de­parts and three more come charg­ing in. It’s rush hour for Chekhov. In Lon­don, as the Young Vic’s pro­duc­tion of Three Sis­ters is draw­ing to a close, the Vaude­ville is pre­par­ing to host a star-stud­ded ver­sion of Un­cle Vanya. Up at the Novello, an­other Un­cle Vanya is about to ar­rive from Moscow. And re­hearsals are un­der way for The Seag­ull, star­ring Matthew Kelly, at South­wark Play­house. We’re in dan­ger of be­com­ing Chekhov ad­dicts. How come we’re hooked?

Chekhov’s ca­reer as a drama­tist was short and full of trou­ble. Early plays flopped. His break­through hit, The Seag­ull, also bombed when it was first per­formed in 1896 at the highly tra­di­tional Alexan­drin­sky The­atre in St Peters­burg. Two years later, a re­vival at the more pro­gres­sive Moscow Arts The­atre was a sur­prise success. Chekhov fol­lowed it up with Un­cle Vanya (1899), Three Sis­ters (1901) and The Cherry Or­chard (1904). Then he died.

His nat­u­ral­is­tic style was new in the the­atre. Rather than cre­at­ing rowdy, dash­ing heroes and elab­o­rate cliffhang­ing plots, he set out to de­pict the slow, tick­ing ba­nal­i­ties of life in the Rus­sian prov­inces. When di­rec­tor Peter Brook first saw Chekhov, he said it was like lis­ten­ing to a tape recorder that had been ac­ci­den­tally switched on dur­ing a fam­ily ar­gu­ment. To mod­ern au­di­ences, raised on re­al­ity TV and soap op­eras, this hum­drum re­al­ism is in tune with our aes­thetic ex­pec­ta­tions. So we ap­proach th­ese tow­er­ing for­eign mas­ter­pieces with an easy mind. They’re clas­sics but they haven’t the ex­alted pre­ten­sions of ‘‘ clas­sic’’ clas­sics. And be­cause Chekhov wrote just four great plays, we can com­plete the set in a long week­end. To do that with Ib­sen would take a fort­night. With Shaw, three weeks. Shake­speare would re­quire a month.

Chekhov flat­ters ev­ery­one, thesps, play­go­ers, de­sign­ers, pro­duc­ers. That’s the se­cret of his pop­u­lar­ity. He flat­ters direc­tors by of­fer­ing them an enor­mous range of tar­gets to hit. The plays be­long to a unique genre. They’re ro­man­tic tragi­comic doc­u­men­tary med­i­ta­tions on the fu­til­ity of ex­is­tence. And it takes a se­ri­ously in­com­pe­tent di­rec­tor to fail in ev­ery one of th­ese reg­is­ters. Chekhov re­as­sures au­di­ences by re­main­ing re­sis­tant to con­cep­tual ex­per­i­ment. To my knowl­edge, no one has tried to stage his work in Nazi Ger­many or mis­sile-cri­sis Cuba or Stone Age Me­sopotamia. The plays re­main where they were born, in finde-siecle Rus­sia.

Hap­pily, it was an age of ex­cep­tional domestic el­e­gance and this gives the set de­signer a very easy time. All it takes is a trip to a Vic­to­rian knick-knackery. Au­di­ences are bound to find the re­sults rav­ish­ing be­cause those an­tique hard­wood in­te­ri­ors grat­ify our se­cret long­ing for the wardrobe-crammed com­forts of our grand­par­ents’ houses.

The colour schemes are un­de­mand­ing. In­doors, the pal­ette is som­bre brown, which can be var­ied with lighter notes of yel­low, grey and off-white. Out­doors, the sun is prob­a­bly set­ting so the es­sen­tial hue is faded am­ber, which cre­ates an in­stant mood of crum­bling grandeur. And of all the colours on the spec­trum, am­ber is the eas­i­est to beau­tify. You just add dis­creet hints of its chro­matic com­ple­ment, azure. The re­sult — blue-or­ange — is ex­quis­ite to look at even though it’s laugh­ably un­ad­ven­tur­ous. But this is Chekhov. Nov­elty and in­no­va­tion would be as out­landish here as a casino in a grave­yard.

The money men are be­witched by Chekhov as well. Three of his plays of­fer the sort of cross-gen­er­a­tional pair­ings that im­pre­sar­ios love. Un­cle Vanya re­quires the ser­vices of a griz­zled TV lothario in the ti­tle role. And he can be matched with an up­com­ing beauty as Ye­lena. The Seag­ull has a sim­i­lar pat­tern with the gen­ders re­versed. A com­edy yob plays Kon­stantin and an age­ing stun­nah takes on Arkad­ina. Same goes for The Cherry Or­chard. The bank­rupt dowa­ger, Ranevskaya, can be per­formed by a house­hold facelift while Lopakhin, the am­bi­tious peas­ant, is ideal for some flavour-of-the-month gag mer­chant from QI. Chekhov spreads his gifts gen­er­ously and even the smaller roles at­tract tal­ented per­form­ers. John Giel­gud, at the height of his pow­ers in 1961, was happy to play the age­ing buf­foon, Gaev, in a pro­duc­tion of The Cherry Or­chard at the Ald­wych The­atre.

Ac­tors love Chekhov be­cause he lets them do what they love best: to ex­press beau­ti­ful thoughts while pranc­ing about in at­trac­tive togs. In pre-Bol­she­vik Rus­sia, ev­ery­one is dressed for a party. The gen­tle­men wear white flan­nel suits with a silk cra­vat, a straw boater and per­haps a pipe. The manser­vants, in scuffed shoes and moth-eaten tail­coats, sug­gest a cer­tain tramp­ish el­e­gance. The serfs look good, too, a glam­orous fu­sion of late Tol­stoy and early grunge.

And let’s not for­get the ladies. Their necks and fin­gers twin­kle with soon-to-be-pawned di­a­monds. Their hair is pinned into froth­ing souf­fles of curled tresses. And they glide across the stage in those sweep­ing floor-length frocks that seem to flat­ter ev­ery fig­ure — even stick­thin dwarfs and ‘‘ dan­ger-to-ship­ping’’ heavy­weights. And the mod­ern au­di­ence un­con­sciously reg­is­ters the Ed­war­dian gown as the sym­bolic at­tire of the Suf­fragettes, so fe­male characters in Chekhov are in­stantly cred­ited with brains, elo­quence and cock­i­ness — fem­i­nists who haven’t lost their fem­i­nin­ity.

And this is Chekhov’s most ex­quis­ite be­guile­ment. Some­how he makes his drunken fools, his cham­pion bores and his pro­vin­cial heiresses feel like our in­ti­mate friends. The first Chekhov I ever saw was an ama­teur pro­duc­tion of Three Sis­ters. It was shoddily de­signed, chaot­i­cally lit and sham­bol­i­cally acted, but I loved it. The ec­cen­tric force­ful­ness of Chekhov’s world over­pow­ered me. I didn’t just want to watch th­ese gar­ru­lous, self­de­lud­ing twerps; I wanted to join them.

Un­cle Vanya

Left, Maly Drama The­atre’s

opened in Syd­ney in 2007; be­low, An­ton Chekhov

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