‘Young Chekhov' : 'Platonov,' 'Ivanov,' & 'The Seagull,' by Anton Chekhov; adapted by David Hare National Theatre September 3, 2016
Wooded landscapes. Decaying summer homes. An onstage stream with reeds. Crickets. Wicker chairs. Everyone waiting unendurably for something to happen: Chekhov.
‘Young Chekhov’ is an impressive accomplishment: three plays by the Russian master playwright presented in repertory, presented in a marathon of 11 hours of drama. Originally produced by the Chichester Festival and transplanted to the massive Olivier stage of the National Theatre complex, the three plays make up some of Chekhov’s earliest writings for the stage, and his own attempts to create the ‘new forms’ Constantin aches for in ‘The Seagull.’ Two of the pieces, ‘Platonov’ and ‘Ivanov’ are rarely performed; the third, ‘The Seagull’ is a staple of modern drama. Presented in new adaptations by David Hare, ‘Young Chekhov’ is gorgeous, and the whole is thematically of a piece, even if the individual plays are not cohesive. Still it is a rare opportunity to look into the sketchbook of the young doctor turned dramatist, who looked at his landscape and people with a clinical eye, frustrated with their foibles and deeply amused by their idiosyncrasies. Watching the three together is not just a binge watching event. It allows for a rare look into the process of an artist finding his voice, and in the course, changing modern drama.
The first piece, ‘Platonov’ centers on the philanderings of a revolutionary gone to seed. The ennui of these summer days is at the center of each of these plays, and Platonov’s entrance into this production is shocking enough, as he comes plashing into the landscape through the onstage stream, dragging his breathless wife behind him. Platonov disrupts the stillness, and seems to have the promise of some excitement for the residents of the provincial dacha. His arrival is more splash than swell, however, and he is no longer the firebrand he once was. When one of his former flames points out that ‘nothing stops him,’ Platonvov replies:
‘Nothing stops me. Nothing excites me, either.’
Having lost the energy of his ideals, he now trades on his charisma to bed the wives of his hosts, leading to a third act of bed-hopping farce which is reminiscent of Chekhov’s early pieces for the burlesque. Hare gleefully changes the savor of his adaptation as well, allowing for an olio of a young artist’s work, happy to serve up many dishes in one evening. The source material for ‘Platonov,’ is over five hours of material, and so including all styles speaks more to the various voices The Good Doctor attempts than to the artist he becomes.
‘Ivanov’ again centers around a charismatic manqué, a young academic who finds himself out of love with the wife whose life he destroyed in order to marry her against her family’s wishes. Now visiting a local heiress nightly, Ivanov is the talk of the provincial town, and the scandal is the most exciting thing to happen in ages. Still regarded as a visionary idealist, despite the fact that his distractions have bankrupted his estate, he aches for the change in the air:
‘If ever a country needed its young, it is now’
Here again, there is a yearning for strong decisive change from the central character, change he is no longer able to create ( or perhaps, was never able to achieve). Even while his wife is dying, Ivanov, is still consumed by his own unhappiness, an unhappiness which makes him Romantic and compelling to the women in town. The pathos of Chekhov’s characters is often their smallness, consumed by the pettiness of their own existence while railing great truths (if fecklessly). Even as their pettiness is comically clear, they beg us to understand them for their faults. In his own story, Ivanov is the tortured one here, not the abandoned and dying wife. With a doctor’s clinical observation Chekhov shows the narcissism of sacrifice, with characters who create the excitement they long for by feeding small, human desires.
By the time of ‘The Seagull,’ the farcical and melodramatic tones of the earlier plays are incorporated more deftly, and Chekhov moves towards a sort of lyric verisimilitude. The daily wait for tea and the small desires of the characters are comically clear, but so is the poeticism of their loneliness in this secluded world of birches and the soft chirrup of crickets. The clowns are still here, as are the pathetic heroes, but now the two live side by side, in each character. The staging of the young playwright’s experimental piece on the side of the lake is evocative, beautiful, and paired with the ludicrous interruptions of the self-absorbed Arkadina and the jabbering of provincials. Visionaries are everywhere in ‘The Seagull,’ from the playwright Constantin and his impressionable lead actress, Nina; to the bold Arkadina and her writer hanger-on, Trigorin. The trouble with Visionaries is they very seldom have any side-sight: so focused on their own goals they cannot see the life and love about them. Trigorin dallies with Nina to discard her, his own fascination with this ‘unfinished story’ over shadowing the love and need in the young girl (In this production, the Trigorin of the last act is a fool, more lap dog than poet: his own weaknesses found out in his treatment of the young Nina). Arkadina too is comically aware of the power of her theatricality, steering each scene and conversation about herself; yet she is pathetically unaware of the damage her grandstanding leaves in its wake.
The three productions produced as a piece make for a rare experience of theatre. The worlds of the plays are gorgeously realized, with sound and lighting designs which capture the crepuscular feeling of these plays written on the edge of a dynasty. The moon floats above an onstage lake in ‘The Seagull,’ and is mirrored in Constantin’s forward thinking design of a theatre in the water; reeds are shadowed against the scrim, allowing the ‘seagull’ Nina to wade her way home through the lake she loves, into a seemingly endless expanse of mist and water. There is even an onstage drizzle during the play’s last act: the craftsmanship in the staging here is remarkable. As a set of three, the plays also support one another in Hare’s adaptations, offering both sketches of a society as well as a cumulative series of characters who revisit the same themes of self-absorption and ache. These aches for any kind of excitement lead characters to create drama by toying with romance, or social action…and finally toying with a life as well. The productions also track the growth of Chekhov’s own ‘New forms!’ – describing the poetry of everyday life with the clinical precision of a doctor’s care, allowing for moments of human foible to be simultaneously comic, and pathetic. The pathos of Chekhov’s characters in not only that we laugh at them…but we simultaneously wish to heal them.