A bit of a sucker for aesthetic marathons, there’s nothing I like better than taking a whole week out of one’s life to hear and see Wagner’s Ring; Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach had me avid for tickets; a painter’s late-career retrospective is usually my kind of show; and from the sublimity of Proust, and at least some of the 12 volumes of Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time, to the ever lubricious, sometimes silly, ten volumes of Simon Raven’s Alms for Oblivion, if it’s a continuing saga, I’ll read it. An all-day Chekhov-fest sounds just my thing, and so it was. At the National Theatre’s huge thrust-stage Olivier auditorium we saw the transfer of the Chichester Festival production, under the collective rubric “Young Chekhov,” of the first three plays: Platonov, Ivanov and The Seagull. David Hare’s versions of all three might just come to be seen as the British playwright’s best work – his treatment of Platonov certainly makes the most of this otherwise baggy, difficult play, and shows it as the masterpiece it is.
This is the first time I’ve seen the whole of Platonov, as the première of this version was at the Almeida Theatre at King’s Cross on September 11th, 2001; and I was among what Hare calls the “understandably distracted” audience. Having heard the first news of the Twin Towers before leaving home, I found myself too jittery to remain in the theatre after the interval. Hare says he’s tweaked the text since, and the present production is superb.
The entire trilogy is directed by Jonathan Kent. With spectacularly successful, flexible and varying sets by Tom Pye, often exciting lighting by Mark Henderson, and music by the top-flight composer, Jonathan Dove, it is no punishment to sit through three plays in a single day. Kent’s direction is almost cinematic – you realise this when the characters deliver a large proportion of their lines facing away from the audience, in the more natural, flowing way dialogue is spoken in the movies. There are exceptions: the soliloquies in each of the plays, and some are delivered in the more theatrical manner, to the audience. Part of the stunning realisation of the three dramas owes its effect to this apparently easy, but in reality very difficult rendering of dialogue as conversation, with its changing postures and more natural-seeming body language. However, there is the risk, when a character turns his back on the audience, that the audience will not be able to hear the actor’s lines. Despite sound designer Paul Groothuis’s best efforts, at this first performance we were deprived of the hearing of a good many lines. This could, of course, be the consequence of our seats, at the extreme left of Row K in the stalls – I checked with my immediate neighbours, and they reported the same difficulties – so perhaps it was not a problem in the rest of the auditorium.
That niggle apart, this was a great theatrical occasion, with memorable playing across all three works. Platonov was a failure when it was written, six0-hours-worth of maundering by a still-young schoolmaster who has, says Hare, “squandered his inherited fortune,” and who invokes Hamlet to characterise his own inability to commit himself to any of the four women to whom he is irresistible (despite his reluctance to wash or shave). As a seducer he’s a tease, a practitioner of amor interruptus – the only woman he’s certainly slept with is his god-bothering, daily church-going, wife, Sasha Ivanovna, as they have an infant son; but probably also Sofya Yogorovna, the impressionable, beautiful wife of the weak Sergei Voynitzev. As Platonov says to his wife, embracing her, “I know I’ve done wrong, I’m Sofya’s lover, possibly Anna’s lover, too – that isn’t quite clear yet.”
Pye’s generous, water-punctuated sets convey the blazing heat of the June 1881 day on an estate in provincial southern Russia; and the dialogue of the first six or seven scenes show us a group of bourgeois characters differently conscious of the social change that is in the air.
James McArdle is magnificent as Platonov, amiably spiky and gracefully awkward, an embodiment of charming contradictions that mean trouble for anyone who falls for him. even Anna Petrovna, “one of the great heroines of the Russian stage,” Hare writes, “– an educated, intelligent and loving woman who can find no place in the world for her love, her intelligence or her education.” She is played by Nina Sosanya with sexy suppleness to the very tips of her fingers, as she gestures, and lights the first of the many cigarettes smoked during the first act (symmetrically balanced by the shots of vodka consumed in the third). There’s fine acting by Olivia Vinall as Sofya (and stamina – she has a major part in all three plays), by Des McAleer (another three-parter) as the murderous horse thief, Osip, and by Joshua James as the doctor in Platonov. (There’s a doctor in each of the three plays.)
Nikolai Ivanov, a regional councillor, is the complement of Mikhail Vasilievich Platonov and Geoffrey Streatfield plays him as lithe and sinuous to McArdle’s angularity. In a bit of brilliant casting, in Ivanov McArdle is the (now clean-shaven) doctor, Lvov, worrying himself sick about the health of Ivanov’s wife, the converted Jew, née Sarah Abramson, who now calls herself by the same name as the heroine of Platonov, Anna Petrovna, and is also played by the elegant Nina Sosanya. Though tubercular and delicate, she has a spine of steel, and does not crumple as much as the audience does when the husband, for whom she has sacrificed family and fortune, calls her a “dirty Jew.” Just as there’s an autobiographical element in each of the three doctors in the troika of plays, and though Ivanov takes on Russian anti-Semitism head-on, Chekhov had a Jewish girlfriend, whom he once referred to horridly as “Efros the Nose.” Hare maintains that this simply shows that the playwright was as complicated as his creations: Chekhov’s plays do away with the stereotyped stock characters of melodrama, but in life he was not above launching a stereotyped insult.
Still, seeing this trio of plays performed together does enhance your respect for Chekhov as one of the greatest of writers, one who, as James Wood insists, should be bracketed with Shakespeare, for the reason that the Russian also never simplifies, or allows a character to be a spokesman for a view or the representative of a trait or humour. Both playwrights respect the individuality of their creations, which is how they teach us something about being human – to be is to be particular, not universal. (Or, as my old teacher, W.V.O. Quine put it, “To be is to be the value of a bound variable.” I’ve always wanted to find an excuse to quote this.)
Whereas Platonov finds Hamlet ridiculous, Ivanov despises himself, saying “I’ve been playing Hamlet.” Where Platonov knows he is irresistible, Ivanov says “I am contagion… How can you love me? No one can love me.” Where Platonov swaggers (if sordidly in his underwear), Ivanov says “I am dying of shame.”
What’s the deal in The Seagull, then? Is the 43-year-old actress Arkadina (supremely played by Anna Chancellor) really past it? Is she as horrid a mother as her son, Konstantin (a willowy but unbending Joshua James) feels she is? Is there really some conflict between the old aesthetic represented by (the too-conscious of his little celebrity) Trigorin (Geoffrey Streatfield) and the (at first, slightly batty) new literature of Kostya? Wonderfully cold and disagreeable, Trigorin has an affair with the star-struck Nina (another fine performance by Olivia Vinall) just because he can – and just as Kostya has shot the seagull – only because he can, and for no other reason or motive.
It’s not giving much away to say that all three plays end with a bang. Or, would do, if Hare did not follow several others and retain the whimpering last line explaining it in The Seagull, delivered by the anodyne Dr Dorn. It doesn’t seem to me to fit the speech rhythms and patterns of the rest of the play, and very definitely does not provide a cadence. All the versions on my bookshelf concur with Hare’s, but in a piece written that year, Mark Lawson says Anya Reiss seems to have solved the problem in her 2012 adaptation.
So kudos all around, with the tiny quibble about sound. Platonov, the weak link in Chekhov’s works, is rescued and redeemed by the production (for me, it even had a slight edge over Ivanov); the casts of all three are superlative; Sir David Hare has done his best work yet; and, though this is a transfer, the National Theatre is once again showing us that it appreciates its own purpose.