The new decade has brought us many unexpected challenges, panic buying across the country, a global pandemic that will last many months and, in the last two weeks, a consequential redefining of all our social and business interactions. But some changes have been for the better and this year three overlapping Chekhov productions have started to redefine the audiences’ relationship with a playwright whose work has been, at best, challenging. Three Sisters at the National Theatre, Uncle Vanya at the Harold Pinter and The Seagull at the Playhouse Theatre have all taken very different approaches to reworking Chekhov all with considerable success, together creating insight into a writer whose emotional and psychological brilliance has often been subverted for visual accuracy.
Each of these productions has taken a very different approach; Three Sisters adapted by Inua Ellams relocated Chekhov’s drama to the Biafran war in the 1960s, Conor McPherson’s Uncle Vanya remained within the limits of a nineteenth-century pseudo-Russian location, while The Seagull took a timeless approach of modern dress and minimal scenery. Yet, together these productions have much in common, sweeping away the overly didactic and weighty nature of costume drama to focus on the relationships between characters and the driving energy of the text, resulting in a more comprehensive understanding of Chekhov’s major plays that brings fresh insight and relevance to a writer whose plays have often felt rather dry.
Location and Staging
Location is extremely important to Chekhov with the three plays in question all taking place on a country estate among largely middle-class landowning people all desperate to be anywhere else. But in imagining these locations for the stage, most earlier approaches have adopted very similar themes, placing the characters in wooden rooms that reflect the shabby gentility of their rural settings with limited access to the outside world and heavy furniture that almost always includes a rocking chair – this visual shorthand has been consistent across UK and international productions from Russian and Eastern Europe that have regularly visited the capital. This attempt to preserve Chekhov in a pseudo-Russian aspic has reduced his plays to melodramatic agri-dramas where farming equipment and techniques have taken precedence over family and story.
Ellams took the most radical approach to location by moving his version of Three Sisters, directed by Nadia Fall, away from the nineteenth-century to demonstrated how readily Chekhov’s emotional perspective and understanding of human nature grafts onto an entirely different era and continent. The context of 1960s war in Africa was outstandingly realised by designer Katrina Lindsay who created a beautiful and chic villa in woods and reeds that dominated the lengthy Lyttelton Stage. A far cry from the drab wooden interiors of previous productions, this rotating house became a sanctuary as the Nigerian Civil War raged outside, emphasising so clearly characters’ attachment to home, place and memory in physical form.
Compare this to designer Rae Smith’s semi-traditional approach to Uncle Vanya that stayed within the confines of the nineteenth-century but broke free of earlier styles with a painterly vision that felt rich in tone and texture. Set in a single well lived in room and directed with sensitivity by Ian Rickson, Smith’s design eschewed the bland wood for a more tumbledown approach, a fading manor house filled with objects from family life overflowing from every shelf bordered by a forest visible through the large windows that cast light across the room as beautifully as a Vermeer painting. Somehow in this still traditional but more open environment, the humour and emotional interior of the characters was freed-up and allowed to fill the large room across four Acts of this Olivier-nominated drama.
Soutra Gilmour’s set for The Seagull is quite different again but has the same effect of clearing the cobwebs of traditional location to focus on the emotional and psychological interaction between the cast. Using a chipboard box, a single table and a set of plastic chairs, there is nothing that visually indicates time, place or era. The actors are dressed in modern everyday clothes that look like their own, with no attempt to create anything as false as a set of ‘costumes’, nothing implies the magical landscape of lake and stars that grounds the play in its very particular setting and so potently affects the characters’ romantic impulses. But the effect is the opposite, and like Smith and Fall, Gilmour has created a blank canvas upon which the real meaning of Chekhov’s text is finally released from the trappings of nineteenth-century dresses and claustrophobically designed rooms.
The characters in each of these three plays are trapped – a Chekovian standard – not just physically unable to leave their location due to war, pecuniary distress or as for Irina in The Seagull the failures of a limited ferry service, but also in emotional holding-patterns which the activity of the play temporarily releases before returning them to their original state, often no better and sometimes only a little worse for their temporary engagement with the wider world. These events are by their nature tragic in the lives of the individual but are often hard to connect with as an audience member, with translations and directional choices unable to help the viewer navigate a series of events to the beating heart of the work.
The three plays presented so far this year have changed that, pulling down the wall between setting and meaning that has proved illuminating in terms of textual excavation. Uncle Vanya has achieved this most successfully within its traditionalist approach by drawing out a new humour in Conor McPherson’s translation that humanised the familiar interactions between siblings, family and neighbours and brought the audience more effectively into the story than ever before. The caustic and sometimes ridiculous relationship between Toby Jones’s Vanya and Ciaran Hinds’s pompous Professor became a fascinating clash of education, ambition and long-held rivalry for attention that spoke volumes about the long-term frustrations bubbling beneath the surface of the siblings, while the romantic yearning Aimee Lou Wood’s Sonya expressed for Doctor Astrov was shown through age and attitude to be entirely one-sided, almost (but not quite) comic in its unlikeliness but nonetheless meaningful for a young woman with little hope of finding happiness or choice.
Ellams adaptation of Three Sisters focused far more on the ennui of confinement and while war raged a few miles away, the constricted sisters are in some ways a stage beyond the inhabitants of Vanya’s farm, their choices made, embedded and cannot be undone whether through unequal marriage as for Natalie Simpson’s Nne Chukwu (the reworked Masha) or desperation for status and recognition as sister-in-law Ronke Adékoluejo found which they must now try to bear. It was an adaptation that emphasised male character purpose bringing the notions of the military and domestic together but it well balanced the competing forces that drive individual personalities including the need to perform specific gender roles, to feel love or need from another person and, again, the strength of family ties to hold things together when all other hope or normalcy is gone.
The Seagull is a far more openly romantic play that either of the other productions which Anya Reiss’s new version drew particular attention to as characters actively sacrifice themselves to destructive forms of love with little regard for the consequences. This approach hones in on the numerous romantic entanglements in the play and exposes the duel excitement and pain they cause for characters such as Tamsin Outhwaite’s Polina, who like Nne / Masha in Three Sisters is caught in a loveless marriage and clings only to a passion for another as her only sustenance. There is a sense in Reiss’s text of how the naivety of early infatuation is cruelly exposed to harm, and we see through Emilia Clarke’s Nina the downward spiral this creates for a woman reduced and tainted by the societal consequences of unguarded passion, while Daniel Monks’s full-bloodied Konstantin is bent on self-destruction when his unrequited love for Nina takes its inevitable course. In all of these adaptations, it is the richness of this multi-character psychology that has more fully allowed the audience to see beneath the period surface of Chekhov’s work and finally feel its range and human depth.
Finding Comedy and Tragedy in Chekhov
Chekhov has rarely been celebrated as a humorist and while he subtly mocks the stiff social conventions that have so often been a feature of adaptations, this new raft of productions have showcased a breadth and depth in his writing that has warmed each of the theatres they have appeared in. Bloated pomposity and ego have been beautifully skewered whether manifest as The Professor in Uncle Vanya or the serious military men buzzing around the Nigeria home of the Three Sisters, we are finally seeing Chekhov’s skill with irony and caricature as he uses these gatherings of overly-familiar groups to draw out the silliness of human interaction and the nonsense of the modes of politeness that underpin class and tradition.
But by clinging to such expectations, none of Chekhov’s characters are allowed to escape tragedy, not tragedy on the grand scale which brings universal death and destruction, but what Chekhov is doing is exposing the tiny tragedies in everyday life that will leave his characters no better placed at the end of the play than at the beginning, that going through the clash of personal and external which each character represents will not ultimately save or change them. These recent productions have conveyed this so well as Richard Armitage’s superb Doctor Astrov opens his heart much as Clarke’s Nina or Simpson’s Nne Chukwu do to a doomed passion that temporarily erupts which must be internalised, repacked and restrained by the end of the play, returning each of these characters to lonely isolation and emotional sterility. In all three of these performances Chekhov’s understanding and charting of how people must survive when all hope is extinguished has been extremely moving.
And although Three Sisters, Uncle Vanya and The Seagull have taken quite different approaches to presenting and elucidating Chekhov’s themes there is a consistency in the way these Directors and their teams have mined the text to more fully understand the psychological drivers within the community of characters Chekhov employs to focus not just on the foregrounded individuals but those who comprise the wider context and how together they are all helping to make each other miserable. All of this is resulting in an exceptionally insightful period of shows that are unveiling a playwright whose work has that timeless and universal quality so redolent of theatre classics, easily transposed to different eras, contexts and situations while still yielding considerable meaning for an audience. As our theatres recover in the coming months let us hope for less period woodwork and far more heart and humour because Chekhov’s secrets are finally emerging.