The opportunity to spend an entire day submerged in Chekhov might sound like a dream come true, but you’d be wise to take into account the playwright’s fascination with suicide. Threatened, contemplated, carried out … The option of self-offing looms large during these early plays –Platonov, Ivanov and The Seagull – reprised in rep by the Chichester Festival Theatre. Even given the lively adaptations provided by acclaimed playwright David Hare, the trio as marathon may amount to too heavy a dose. Emerging in the dark onto the Waterloo Bridge, you may find yourself reassessing its height and survivability.
The earliest play, Platonov (1881), survives as a serial reworking of a student effort titled “Play Without a Title,” which would have run seven hours had anyone been willing to take it on. Instead, it made delayed debuts in theatres across Europe and Scandinavia. In Hare’s hands, it’s startlingly fresh, and – at roughly three hours – relatively fleet, thanks in large part to James McArdle’s charismatic performance in the title role. This country schoolteacher, hailed by his provincial peers as the “only interesting man in the region,” is catnip to the women in his orbit: for starters, his put-upon wife Sasha Ivanovna (Jade Williams), newly delivered of a son; slumming recent widow Anna Petrovna (Nina Sosanya); and even mousy, uptight science nerd Maria Grekova (Sarah Twomey), who does her best to appear appalled at his teasing overtures. The whole roundelay can’t help but end badly, but meanwhile we get to savor Tom Pye’s extraordinarily atmospheric set, equipped with wadeable bogs and a realistic oncoming train (effective light and sound by Mark Henderson and Paul Groothuis, respectively).
The same set morphs adroitly into the office and drawing room of Ivanov (1887), Chekhov’s first play to be produced. He braided into it some of his own life experiences to date. We view Nikolai Ivanov, a petty regional administrator, through the eyes of an impassioned young doctor (by this point Chekhov had been practicing for a couple of years) disgusted with Ivanov’s repugnance for his dying wife; she is Jewish, and Ivanov has belatedly awakened to his own latent but virulent anti-Semitism. (Chekhov himself, in his mid-20s, had undertaken a secret engagement to a young Jewish woman; in a letter written at the time he was chivalrously vague as to who broke it off.) When Ivanov at length emerges from his persistent depression sufficiently aroused to burst out in derogatory invective, the audience inevitably gasps. Unfortunately Geoffrey Streatfeild’s portrayal up to that point is so doggedly morose, onlookers may find themselves dragged down along with him into the murky depths. At least there are some comic country society types on hand – notably, Beverley Klein as a flamboyant “old bat” – to provide intermittent amusement.
It makes no sense why Ivanov’s new love interest, the young and virginal Sasha (wide-eyed Olivia Vinall), would take the slightest interest in this sour, mopey dullard. Vinall resurfaces in The Seagull (1894) to play starry-eyed Nina, and it’s a pity that – under Jonathan Kent’s otherwise deft direction – she opts to tackle that iconic post-breakdown cri de coeur (in Hare’s rendition, “I’m the seagull, No, that’s not right”) with a physical routine better suited to the Three Stooges. Compensatorily, Joshua James as the inept, aspiring young writer Konstantin is superb – convincingly green and gung-ho at the outset (while employing no juvenile usual tricks) and devastatingly somber in his adult guise. It’s Konstantin’s story that’s likely to break your heart, as perhaps Chekhov intended.