It’s interesting to note that Chekhov, like Turgenev, Ibsen and Strindberg, matured into greatness later in life. Yet, with the exception of Eugene O’Neill, all the greatest American and British 20th-century dramatists (Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Harold Pinter, Edward Albee, Alan Ayckbourn, Tom Stoppard) made their reputations while relatively young men.
Young Chekhov, a trilogy that includes two of Chekhov’s earliest plays, offers a riveting insight into the maturing process of a playwright whose greatness is second only to Shakespeare. Yet, when he wrote a first draft of Platonov at age 20, no one was interested in staging it, and the play remained unproduced in his lifetime.
Watching it today in a trenchant version by David Hare – which had the misfortune of opening at the Almeida Theatre on the night of the 9/11 attacks in New York, and which, together with Hare’s adaptation of Ivanov, Chekov’s first completed (and staged) play – it will surely be more regularly performed.
Not that Platonov and Ivanov are masterpieces. But as they so triumphantly proved at last year’s Chichester Festival, the seeds of future greatness are very much in evidence. Both plays have familiar bourgeoisie settings. There are the equally familiar references to the boredom of country life. Relentless heat is a factor. The eponymous leading men exhibit Hamlet-like qualities (no accident as Hamlet is referenced on more than one occasion). Both men are unwilling or unable to requite the love of the women in their lives. Both the estates on which the plays are set are in financial jeopardy. Both feature medical doctors. And both plays (as does The Seagull) end in death by gunshot. They also have in common what the critic Kenneth Tynan memorably referred to as “dynamic apathy.”
Despite the melodrama and the miasma of doom that turn many of the characters into life’s victims, they possess a fair amount of humour, justifying Chekhov’s own description of his plays as comedies. Indeed, there are scenes in both these early plays that border on farce.
For me, the real discoveries of Jonathan Kent’s exemplary staging of the trilogy are Platonov the play and Platonov the character. As interpreted so beguilingly by James McArdle in a Scottish accent, he’s a mundane, vodka-imbibing schoolmaster by profession but with a braggadocio swagger women find irresistible. Though married, he is having affairs with a general’s widow and a recently married ex-flame. No wonder his brother-in-law calls him “misogyny on wheels.”
Ivanov, on the other hand, has all of Platonov’s flaws, but without his charm or charisma. As played, quite harrowingly, by Geoffrey Streatfeild, he’s clearly a man in deep crisis. He’s clinically depressed, deeply in debt and has no love for his ailing wife Anna (Nina Sosanya, excellent) whom he shockingly condemns as a “dirty Jew.” The only person he despises more is himself. Yet for all that he is pursued by love-struck Sasha (Olivia Vinali).
He’s the centre-piece of a social set Chekhov lacerates with a gaggle of female friends and neighbours whom Kent allows to overact to the point of caricature in order, do doubt, to underline just how anti-Semitic, empty and shallow they are. The men fare better with McArdle, unrecognisable with slicked-back hair and a shaven face, as the sanctimonious Dr. Lvov, who diagnoses Anna’s tuberculosis.
In 1896, nine years after Ivanov, The Seagull disastrously premiered in St. Petersburg. In 1898 it was famously revived by Stanislavski and the Moscow Art Theatre, immediately establishing itself as the most important play of its time.
Unlike the two earlier plays, it’s an ensemble piece with four central characters in which Chekhov seamlessly extends the parameters of theatre by writing a key scene featuring an avant-garde play within the play.
Konstantin (Joshua James) is an aspiring symbolist playwright intent on establishing new forms. His mother Arkadina (Anna Chancellor) is a self-absorbed actress who has no time for her son’s literary pretentions and refuses to take his writing seriously. She’s in love with Trigorin (Geoffrey Streatfeild), a worldly, highly successful middle-brow author whose work Konstantin despises. The fourth character is Nina (Olivia Vinali), a would-be actress, whom Konstantin loves, but who is tragically in thrall to Trigorin.
In Kent’s luminous staging and Hare’s vibrant adaptation, all four of the central characters give superb performances, with Vinali’s Nina especially affecting.
Designer Tom Pye’s sets – with exteriors dominated by birch trees and a lake through which Nina, sprite-like, makes all her entrances and exits – is economical but effective. In Platonov he even conjures up a train that hurtles towards the audience.
As was the case in Chichester, you can see all three plays on certain days, or, if you find that prospect daunting (and you really shouldn’t) you can see them separately. Either way this is a magnificent theatrical experience.