Continuing my personal A – Z of writers, I have chosen Anton Chekhov for the letter C. Mainly known for his plays and short stories, Chekhov is one of my all time favourite writers. Though all his work dates back to over a century ago – he died in 1904 – and are all set in Russia, he still to my mind at least has a universal appeal. There is something both simple about his writing and yet very powerful in what he conveys. I have seen in one form or another all but the earliest of his major plays, and like to dip into his short stories.
The collection of short stories I have, one of the few books I have bought in recent years, is a relatively new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. The introduction by Pevear includes Chekhov’s own principles for what makes for a good story: 1. Absence of lengthy verbiage of a political-social-economic nature; 2. total objectivity; 3. truthful descriptions of persons and objects; 4. extreme brevity; 5. audacity and originality – flee the stereotype; 6. compassion. Pevear writes that the above is, “a remarkably complete description of Chekhov’s artistic practice. Authorial commentary, if not entirely absent, is kept to an absolute minimum. The most ordinary events, a few words spoken, no plot, a focus on single gestures, minor features, the creation of a mood that is both precise and somehow elusive – such is Chekhov’s impressionism.”
Apart from Ivanov, I have seen at least one version of all the other main plays. The Seagull, which can be very difficult to stage, I have seen in two different live versions on stage. The first was at the Dundee Rep in a production directed by Lithuanian Rimas Tuminas. Wonderfully well acted by the resident company, it was not the most flowing of productions and perhaps a bit too harsh. The other Seagull featured an all star British cast and was directed by Peter Stein. Having seen the play earlier in Dundee made it easier to follow this production which was excellent in just about everything.
Uncle Vanya I have only seen once and that was the 1994 film version by Michael Blakemore. Set in the 1920s in rural Australia, this was an adaptation of the play and renamed Country Life. It featured Sam Neil, Greta Scacchi, John Hargreaves and Kerry Fox. I enjoyed the film immensely and it seemed to catch the essence of the play, but I have yet to see a stage production to compare.
Three Sisters is possibly the play I most like, though I can only recall seeing one production, at least recently. That was in 2006 at the Edinburgh Festival in a performance by the American Repertory Theatre, directed by Polish director Krystian Lupa. This was a very strange production and though the cast were very good the performance as a whole was spoiled by a couple of directorial extravagances. The first was the director’s insistence that just about every utterance was preceded by a seemingly unending pause. Now pauses can be a wonderful dramatic device, but when used indiscriminately as here, it loses any purpose, other than to irritate the audience. The other irritation came from the director himself who sitting in one of the boxes would regularly accompany the acting by tapping his walking stick hard onto the ground.
I have also seen on TV a ballet version of Three Sisters. Kenneth MacMillan choreographed a one act ballet entitled Winter Dreams. It was performed by the Royal Ballet with Darcy Bussell and Irek Mukhamedov in the main roles. The music was from various Tchaikovsky scores and the whole was wonderful and though only 53 minutes long, did capture the essence of the play. I would like to see a really good stage production of the play though.
The Cherry Orchard, the last of Chekhov’s plays is another favourite. Last year we saw the National Theatre’s production at the DCA in a live relay. Very enjoyable and impressive performances. Directed by Howard Davies, with an excellent cast led by Zoë Wanamaker as Madame Ranyevskaya. Earlier I had watched an equally impressive performance from 1981 which featured Judi Dench as Madame Ranyevskaya. This was produced by the BBC and directed by Richard Eyre. The year before I managed to catch a radio production of the play. This was directed by Peter Kavanagh and had Sarah Miles as Madame Ranyevskaya. This was also very good and without any visual clues forced you to listen to the words even more attentively. Very good way to get to know the play.
If you would like to know a bit more about Chekhov and his work for the stage, I cannot recommend highly enough a shortish book by Richard Gilman entitled simply Chekhov’s Plays – an opening into eternity.