Three Chekhovs in two days

Once again I find myself taken off to the theatre, the National, in a small group – this time for a full immersion in Young Chekhov. For the matinee, we were treated to Platonov, happily somewhat reduced in length from the original eight hours of material which was never staged in the author’s lifetime (he’d never finished it). All the usual themes are already in place in this first play – the rural setting, latter 19th century Russian ‘home counties’, bored brooding privileged middle-class characters with too much time on their hands, given to introspection and self-destruction through drink and debt. A doctor and a schoolmaster, landowner and retired army officers populate this first play, as with all his subsequent ones it seems. These contrast with the rich variety of female characters – wives and daughters in most cases. All beautifully observed, and even I can see how revolutionary it was for a play to consist of such a depiction of fairly ordinary people’s domestic and personal concerns. A play with no big plots, no melodrama, just friends, neighbours and families interacting, with the focus on human emotions mainly, though not without some dramatic developments including violent death.

I found myself looking for anything that might hint at or presage the horrors ahead for Russia, or provide some sort of explanation, but there isn’t much.   There’s economic upheaval, but the same went on all over Europe as it adapted to the  huge growth in US economic strength and the decline in rural economies as urbanisation took off. These people are not very concerned with big politcal ideas, and don’t see much amiss apart from worrying about their incomes and properties.

The three plays employ the same stunning set, with its elements regrouped and rearranged, varying just enough to keep it fresh, as do the actors. Some old cards like Brian Pettifer, Peter Egan and Anna Chancellor mix it with the younger ones. Ivanov and The Seagull present us with some similar characters once more…the doctor, the schoolmaster, the landowner, and similar dilemmas and angst, useless but engaging chaps various, and tearful or feisty women. One can see how Chekhov developed and refined his tropes by exploring them repeatedly.

Ivanov went down a treat after high tea, and The Seagull – well it just flew by (the following evening). How true to the originals these renditions are I have no idea: I suspect we would find them a bit turgid without updating of the language, plus the whole business of translation and how that works. Anyhow, all  enjoyable bigly.


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