Addicted to Chekhov

Lloyd Evans, THE SPECTATOR from 27 October, 2012

One departs and three more
come charging in. It’s always rush-hour for Chekhov in the capital. As the
Young Vic’s production of Three Sisters is drawing to a close, the
Vaudeville is preparing to host a star-studded version of Uncle Vanya.
Up the road, at the Novello, another Uncle Vanya is about to arrive
from Moscow.
And rehearsals are already under way for The Seagull, starring Matthew
Kelly, at Southwark Playhouse. For years, we’ve been recreational users of
Chekhov. We’re now in danger of becoming hopeless addicts. How come we’re

Chekhov’s career as a
dramatist was short and full of trouble. Early plays flopped. His breakthrough
hit, The Seagull, also bombed when it was first performed in 1896 at
the highly traditional Alexandrinsky Theatre in St Petersburg. Two years later, a revival at
the more progressive Moscow Arts Theatre was a surprise success. Chekhov
followed it up with Uncle Vanya (1899), Three Sisters (1901)
and The Cherry Orchard (1904). Then he died.

His naturalistic style was
something new in the theatre. Rather than creating rowdy, dashing heroes and
elaborate cliffhanging plots, he set out to depict the slow, ticking banalities
of everyday life in the Russian provinces. When the director Peter Brook first
saw Chekhov, he said it was like listening to a tape recorder that had been
accidentally switched on during a family argument. To modern audiences, raised
on reality TV and soap operas, this humdrum realism is already in tune with our
aesthetic expectations. So we approach these towering foreign masterpieces with
an easy mind. They’re classics but they haven’t the scariness or the exalted
pretensions of ‘classic’ classics. And because Chekhov wrote just four great
plays we can complete the set over a long weekend. To do that with Ibsen would
take a fortnight. With Shaw, three weeks. Shakespeare would require a month.

Chekhov flatters us. He
flatters everyone, thesps, play-goers, designers, producers. That’s the secret
of his popularity. He flatters directors by offering them an enormous range of
targets to hit. The plays, which are impossible to classify, belong to a unique
genre. They’re romantic tragicomic documentary meditations on the futility of
existence. And it takes a seriously incompetent director to fail in every one
of these registers. Chekhov reassures audiences by remaining utterly resistant
to conceptual experiment. To my knowledge, no one has tried to stage his work
in Nazi Germany or missile-crisis Cuba or Stone Age Mesopotamia. The
plays remain where they were born in fin-de-siècle Russia.

Happily, it was an age of
exceptional domestic elegance and this gives the set designer a very easy time.
All it takes is a trip to a Victorian knickknackery, and the removal of the
entire stock into a waiting van, and the task is complete. Audiences are bound
to find the results ravishing because those antique hardwood interiors gratify
our secret longing for the wardrobe-crammed comforts of our grandparents’

The colour schemes are
similarly undemanding. Indoors, the palette is sombre brown, which can be
varied with lighter notes of yellow, grey and off-white. Outdoors, the sun is
probably setting so the essential hue is faded amber, which creates an instant
mood of crumbling grandeur. And of all the colours on the spectrum, amber is
the easiest to beautify. You just add discreet hints of its chromatic
complement, azure. The result — blue-orange — is exquisite to look at even
though it’s as laughably unadventurous as a recipe consisting of coqand vin. But this is Chekhov. Novelty and innovation would be as
outlandish here as a casino in a graveyard.

The money men are bewitched
by Chekhov as well. Three of his plays offer the sort of cross-generational
pairings that impresarios love. Uncle Vanya requires the services of a
grizzled TV lothario in the title role. And he can be matched with an upcoming
Brit-flick beauty as Yelena. The Seagull has a similar pattern with
the genders reversed. A comedy yob plays Konstantin and an ageing stunnah takes
on Arkadina. Same goes for The Cherry Orchard. The bankrupt dowager,
Ranevskaya, can be performed by a household facelift while Lopakhin, the
ambitious peasant, is ideal for some flavour-of-the-month gag merchant from QIor Mock the Week. Chekhov spreads his gifts generously and even the
smaller roles attract talented performers. John Gielgud, at the height of his
powers in 1961, was happy to play the ageing buffoon, Gaev, in a production of The
Cherry Orchard
at the Aldwych Theatre.

Actors love Chekhov because
he lets them do what they love best: to express beautiful thoughts while prancing
about in attractive togs. In pre-Bolshevik Russia, everyone is dressed for a
party. The gentlemen wear white flannel suits with a silk cravat, a straw
boater and perhaps a pipe. For dinner, they change into full Bullingdon rig.
The men-servants, in scuffed shoes and moth-eaten tailcoats, suggest a certain
trampish elegance. The serfs look good, too. The beard, the belted smock and
the Joe Orton cap create a glamorous fusion of late Tolstoy and early grunge.

And let’s not forget the
ladies. Their necks and fingers twinkle with soon-to-be-pawned diamonds. Their
hair is gathered and pinned into frothing soufflés of curled tresses. And they
glide around the stage in those sweeping floor-length frocks that seem to
flatter every figure — even stick-thin dwarfs and ‘danger-to-shipping’
heavyweights. And the modern audience unconsciously registers the long-sleeved
Edwardian gown as the symbolic attire of the Suffragettes, so female characters
in Chekhov are instantly credited with brains, eloquence and cockiness. To us
they look like feminists who haven’t lost their femininity.

And this is Chekhov’s most
exquisite beguilement. Somehow he makes his drunken fools, his champion bores
and his sighing provincial heiresses feel like our intimate friends. The first
Chekhov I ever saw was an am-dram production of Three Sisters in the Fulham Road. It was
shoddily designed, chaotically lit and shambolically acted but I loved every
minute of it. The eccentric forcefulness of Chekhov’s world overpowered me. I
didn’t just want to watch these garrulous, self-deluding twerps; I wanted to
join them and be there, too. Chekhov consoles us theatre-goers for all the
country-house parties we never get invited to.

There’s nothing wrong with
succumbing to Chekhov’s non-stop charm offensive. The only danger is that we’ll
become too easily satisfied with a butter mountain of comfort-food theatre. And
we might, if were feeling virtuous, try to purge our systems with a period of
Lenten austerity and give Chekhov the brush-off for a month or two. But in
practice, we can’t get enough of him.