Chekhov has a reputation as a miserabilist, due in large part to his recurring themes of suicide and existential dread. But this does a disservice to the comedy that runs through his work – and thank goodness it does, because if his plays were as gloomy as people tend to think, eight hours of them in a single day would be enough to have you reaching for Chekhov’s gun.
This triple bill of his first three plays, Platonov, Ivanov and The Seagull, all performed by the same cast, transfers from a successful run in Chichester last year, and it’s utterly glorious.
Each play is complex to the point of saturation, exploring love, marriage, politics, class, the human condition and the artistic process. Some characters represent single facets of Russian life – a nouveau riche capitalist, a bankrupt aristocrat – while others are part of a more nuanced tapestry detailing a point in history that teetered between tradition and modernity.
The day begins with a play that’s come to be known simply as Platonov, although it’s been staged under the titles including Fatherlessness, That Worthless Fellow Platonov, Don Juan (in the Russian Manner), A Country Scandal and Wild Honey. Chekhov is thought to have written it when he was still a medical student (he was a doctor as well as a playwright) but ditched it before it was performed.
There are hints at why: it’s more of a farce than his later plays, more unwieldy, showing less of the realism that would define his later work. But it’s still a fine play, buzzing with chaotic energy. One of the joys of Chekhov is the scope for interpretation: what could be a wistful aside to one director is a straight-to-audience zinger for another – in the hands of David Hare, who updated the text, and director Jonathan Kent, Platonov becomes a riotous comedy, right up until the point when it isn’t.
It follows Mikhail Platonov, a renowned wit and champion of workers’ rights turned jaded provincial schoolmaster, who embarks upon a series of doomed extra-marital affairs. He loves his frumpy wife, kind of, but he’s also enamoured with educated modern woman Anna Petrovna (the excellent Nina Sosanya, who I can’t help but associate with the TV show Teachers), and his highly-strung old flame Sofya, who is now unhappily married. “Is it boredom? Is it love?” he muses. He’s played by the infectious James McArdle, who maintains his impish energy even when Platonov retreats, as virtually everyone does in Chekhov plays, to the succour of vodka.
Ivanov is more recognisably Chekhov’s, centring around a man whose desire to remain true to his principles in a world of crooks and thieves has left him bankrupt and broken, a modern Hamlet adrift in a sea of self-loathing and depression. He clashes with the puritanical doctor of his dying wife – James McArdle again, almost unrecognisable from the previous play – a self-styled “honest man” who condemns him for leaving the marital home every night to attend gauche parties with his neighbours. In a day of exceptional theatre, Geoffrey Streatfeild’s monologue on the tragedy of ageing is the apex. His sadness is pounced upon by the beautiful Sasha (Olivia Vinall, another of the night’s stand-out performers), who dreams of “fixing” him.
There’s plenty of light entertainment from the pompous nouveaux riches neighbours, especially the brilliantly irritating Emma Amos, but at the heart of this play lies an impotent, inward-facing rage, masterfully teased out by another exceptional production.
Finally comes one of Chekhov’s more established plays, The Seagull, a sardonic take on the artistic process and the terrible toll it can take. For Chekhov, the act of writing and producing is one of violence and disappointment, reflecting his experiences with the very plays we’ve just watched (Platonov was rejected outright, while the initial run of Ivanov was both poorly acted and received).
The play follows young lovers Konstantin, a wannabe writer, and Nina, an aspiring actress, as their youthful dreams are chewed-up and spat out by the older generation. Konsta craves the approval of his wonderfully selfish actress mother Arkadina, while Nina falls for Arkadina’s writer husband Trigorin. Once again Vinall puts in a heartbreaking, show-stealing performance as young ingenue Nina. Things do not go well, but when they fall apart, they do so with rare grace.
The Seagull makes extraordinary use of Tom Pye’s remarkable set – which remains constant throughout the day – a ramshackle boardwalk in the Russian countryside surrounded by forest and a muggy lake, a mist of heat lingering around the reeds. A scene in which Nina pads barefoot through the water as the evening sun reflects from her impossibly golden hair looks like a pre-raphaelite painting.
This triple bill provides fresh perspective on one of the great dramatists. The quick succession allows you to spot recurring motifs like checking off numbers on a bingo card; the perpetual stifling heat, the comparisons to Hamlet, the ominous presence of birds. But above all it shows the origins of Chekhov’s obsession with escape – from marriage, from age, from class. Unfortunately, escape often proves rather final.
Young Chekhov is a triumphant meeting of text, cast and execution: forget Netflix, this is the ultimate binge watching.
First published in City A.M.