Chekhov in Spades

Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov, based on a new version by Hannah Vincent, from a literal translation by G.R. Ledger. University of Sussex Drama and the School of English, Final Year Performance Project, directed by Jason Price, Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts, Falmer, 22 April, 4pm.

Ah, Chekhov. No playwright, saving only the Bard, is accorded more respect, more reverence. I've read somewhere, I can't remember where, that the English speaking theatre has a special relationship with Chekhov, and I guess that's true if you consider how many productions there are and how his name seems to generate box office gold. The only problem is he didn't write enough plays. Someone, somewhere is always re-working his early, rejected, by him at least, attempts to nail down his style.

I personally haven't seen that many productions. Two in Australia, one amateur Three Sisters where Sydney was substituted for Moscow (imagine, if the you can, the sisters, if in America, pining for Las Vegas - funny for all the wrong reasons) and one professional of the same play, actually in Sydney, starring the antipodean Olivier, John Bell (he has a company named after him - The Bell Shakespeare Company, billed in order of importance one assumes) which production left in me, at least, a vague feeling of discomfort that there was something wrong, that the actors seemed to be driven by motivations entirely different from those in the play. I couldn't help the impression that the players, being Australian, had few opportunities to establish a pecking order, and that this play and this particular production offered that chance. Not just to play at being aristocrats, but to be aristocrats, artistically at least. You want to question my star quality? Look, I'm doing Chekhov. Take a hike, mate!

Another production, a film actually, which made a lasting impression was Vanya on 42nd Street, directed by Louis Malle and starring Wallace Shawn and a young Julianne Moore. The film also features the theatre director, Andre Gregory, effectively re-uniting the team from My Dinner With Andre, a cult classic. Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory are, genuinely, New York royalty, in artistic circles at least. Wallace Shawn is the son of William Shawn, long time editor of the New Yorker magazine. It's not fair to hold that against him, of course.

Are you going to get to the point?

The point is that there is a pretty strong temptation, when doing Chekhov, to come down on the side of the poor, put upon, upper classes. We all know how things turned out for them, don't we? Turn up the poignant dial to eleven, cue wistfulness, fade in the emotive music, bathe it all in sepia, how sad, how tragic, how aristocratic we all are to understand them so deeply and completely.

How sad, alright!

Before seeing this production, the sense that there was something wrong with this picture was just that, a sense. What exactly was Chekhov trying to say?

Another meander off the point. (Stay with me.) During the last 60 years or so, there's been a general sense that things are getting better, each generation will see an improvement in opportunity and living standards. Computers will get faster, science fiction will become every day fact.

Having watched the Three Sisters at Sussex University, it hit me with blinding clarity that this is no longer believed to be true. And so, more than one hundred years on, our situation is now aligned with the one Chekhov found himself in.

Things are getting worse and people, at least these students, know it.

The other great urban myth about Chekhov is that it is wildly funny. 'When Stanislavsky did this stuff, people were rolling in the aisles. Really? Those Russians! They are very odd.'
And this production? To be honest, I was absolutely gobsmacked by what I saw. From the beginning, the cast sitting on stage, in rows of chairs, looking at us as we looked at them; to letting the Russian song, which seemed quite long, play out in full whilst still looking at us; to starting the action by explaining what they were doing rather than launching straight into it (reminiscent of Vanya on 42nd Street but with an entirely different effect) all built a kind of tongue-in-cheek, distancing effect of actors from characters, leading us, critically, humorously, sceptically, into this oh-so-familiar play.

They took a classic and made something new, not just by adding speeches of their own, but by genuinely having fun with, and thus allowing the audience to find funny, those moments which would otherwise have been mawkish or maudlin. Take an honest view of these people and of course they are funny. Aristocrats? You have to be joking.

The overriding effect was irreverence, and what a breath of fresh air it was.

I can't not mention the theatre; what was the Gardiner Arts Centre is now the Attenborough Centre, and the theatre space is pretty wonderful; as was the set, (you want Chekhov? here's the whole autumnal thing in spades) and lighting, (they had all the kit, film projection etc. but it was used to enhance rather than draw attention to itself). Overall, watching a play in this theatre is a very luxurious experience.

I'm only sorry this production wasn't playing longer. I would definitely have gone to see it again.

Paul Corcoran