Chichester Festival Theatres (**** overall, *** The Seagull)
How do you like your Chekhov? Do you even like Chekhov? Is he sacrosanct or ripe for parody and rehashing? Lord knows he’s been taken apart over the years, re-constructed (famously the American avant garde Wooster Group with Brace Up!, their deconstructed version of Chekhov’s Three Sisters) and put back together again. Like Shakespeare, debates rage around his texts, none more so than the early play of Platonov (pronounced with the emphasis on the second syllable apparently) and Ivanov, the latter his first full length play and typically not a success on its first showing.
According to David Hare, the adapter of the three plays that make up this Young Chekhov season in Chichester which puts Platonov and Ivanov beside the later `mature’ work of The Seagull, `it is essential to see these vibrant and much more direct plays for what they are – thrilling sunbursts of youthful anger and romanticism – rather than for what they portend.’
Platonov which leads the trio has certainly been `up for grabs’ in recent years. Its original text ran to something like seven hours, Hare tells us in his fulsome programme notes. We know it better now under the title of Wild Honey, cheekily redubbed by Michael Frayn for his pared back version in the 1980s. And just last month, the Irish company, Dead Centre, took a wrecking ball to the play and practically dispensed altogether with its eponymous central figure.
Hare, neither wrecker nor traditionalist, considers his adaptation `more faithful’. Running in at around two and a half hours, it was in fact the version used by this season’s director Jonathan Kent whilst running the Almeida Theatre when it opened, with desperately unfortunate timing in 2001 on the night of 9/11.
If its genesis before the current Chichester version has been a mixed one – to say the least – there’s little doubt that of the three plays on show here, Platonov is the one that most playgoers, whether seeing them altogether in one day – which if you’ve a Chekhovian bent, I’d warmly recommend and indeed, if only seeing one – you’ll warm too most immediately.
That’s not to say, it’s the better play. All three will have their champions and for my money – of which more shortly – Ivanov is the one that most affected and moved me. But Platonov, the tragic-farce built around a once idealistic young firebrand now turned disappointed school-teacher who attracts women to him like bees to honey-pot, is blessed with a dizzying sense of comic absurdity, fully extracted by Kent and his cast led by the charismatic James McCardle.
As Platonov, McCardle takes us from highs and lows: despicable, wayward, unreliable yet totally, humanly appealing. Of course, as with all three plays, Platonov does not stand by its leading character alone. The great joy, particularly of the first two plays is the breadth and width of the community and communal life Chekhov captures; from the beautiful – and financially inept – widow, Anna Petrovna (Nina Sosanya, dazzling in a variety of full-length skirts), to the local poacher/peasant thief by way of various drunken, malevolent local officials and suitors. In all three you’ll find a doctor figure – notable either for their weakness for alcohol or medical ineptitude. And in all three, blazingly, the young ingénue, the young woman in whom Chekhov’s male protagonists identify a symbol of hope they believe has all but died in them. And inevitably fall madly in love with.
Kent is as lucky here – in his Sofya in Platonov – as he is with Sasha in Ivanov and Nina, `the seagull’ in The Seagull – in having the same actress, Olivia Vinall, who despite the similarity of all three roles makes each one definitively different, each one a personality in her own right. Vinall’s trio of performances are a triumph, as much as is McCardle who made such an impression as James I in the National Theatre of Scotland’s equally terrific Rona Munro trilogy of James’ Plays earlier in the year.
Platonov then offers laughter through the tears and some magnificent ensemble playing and set pieces, suffused with sunset glows and shimmering water on Tom Pye’s amazingly adaptable woodland domestic setting.
Ivanov is another matter. Another male protagonist who has lost his way and his bearings in life, Sam West’s young landowner is the most fearsome, darkest journey into despair and the most truthful portrait of clinical depression possibly in western drama.
Another idealist who has given his all but finds at 35 the sands of time have run out, Ivanov hardly lends himself to sympathy with a steady diet of – some would say, many did around me – self-indulgent self-pity and an ever increasing cruelty and self loathing so deep it scorches all who come near. This settles especially on his Jewish wife who gave up religion and family, is now dying of TB but whose proximity seems to only provoke Ivanov to greater hatred.
Amazing to see such awareness of Russian anti-semitism drawn so clearly, Chekhov also lost no time in Ivanov in painting with a vitriol Gogol had used earlier in The Government Inspector to lambast small town society. There are few leavening moments in Ivanov – save for Pavel (Jonathan Coy), the hen-pecked husband of money-lending Zinaida Savishna (Lucy Briers) and his daughter, Sasha. Yet the play in Hare’s version and West’s performance urges us to consider and understand the human pain beneath rather than simply condemn.
For added bonus, here there is also a magnificently cast Peter Egan as a widower searching, as ever, for funds and a wealthy wife to see him through the rest of his days.
Egan, it is, who most captures what we’ve come to understand as distinctly Chekhovian – that multi-layered richness compiled of one third hopelessness, one third a sense of the ridiculous and yet a final third belief that life can go on.
Hare’s adaptation of The Seagull, particularly, seems to suffer most in this respect. The best known of the trio of plays, it nonetheless feels over-filleted, thinned out despite again a stellar cast including Anna Chancellor as the self-absorbed actress-mother, Irina Arkadina and Sam West as Trigorin, the second-rate novelist and destroyer of innocence in the shape of Arkadina’s troubled son and would-be writer, Konstantin and his girl-friend and putative actress Nina.
Egan it is who fills out the messy, fleshly bits in between. A wonder and a joy, he adds ballast to nonetheless a fascinating trio of plays that each in their own way touch on subjects as vast and varied as materialism, the nature of Art, the obsessive qualities of a vocation, male and female attraction, self-respect, class, the dying breed of landowners and the coming of the proletariat.
They’re all in there and to some extent, underlined by Hare in his adaptations which re-emphasise the rapacity of business and by Jonathan Kent who steadily modernises the dress code so that by the time we arrive at The Seagull, we are assuredly in the modern era if not exactly contemporary. I’ll be very surprised if we don’t see them very soon, coming to a stage near you, or at least somewhere closer than Chichester.
Young Chekhov is at the Chichester Festival Theatre to Nov 14, 2015.
This review first appeared in Londongrip Oct 2015