NOTE: You can buy tickets for all three plays in the Young Chekhov season at the National Theatre via My Theatre Mates: The Seagull, Ivanov and Platonov. Runs at the Olivier through to 8 October 2016.
A TREMENDOUS TRINITY
This trilogy, transferred from Chichester is an epic: a thrilling voyage through time to the earliest days of Anton Chekhov. And, if it is not too philistine a thing to murmur, it will draw to him even those people who don’t fire up with excitement at the later masterpieces – especially the often morosely played The Cherry Orchard and Three Sisters. There are still a few chances to take in the ‘three-play-day”, and however hot and tempting the summer day, it will demonstrate even to doubters that eight hours of 19th-century Russian drama can be a perfect way to spend it.
Three three theatre giants – Chekhov, adapter David Hare and director Jonathan Kent – with a brilliant cast create a world joyfully funny, vigorous, real and ruefully familiar to anyone who ever had a family, a neighbourhood and a heart. Those who already love Chekhov will find all the themes there – passion, disappointed lives, debts, women emerging aflame with opinions and demands, and a 19c Russia trying to work out whether to look back to an age of peasants and leisured landowners or to face a modern, vigorous but perhaps less ethical commercial age. The set by Tom Pye is gloriously romantic: a woodland, redfringed garden with a stream which in the final play becomes a lake.
These are very early plays: PLATONOV is a rumbustious chronicle of an educated, thwarted widow Anna – Nina Sosanya – and a Byronically handsome man who creates havoc in a family and within himself – James McArdle, a magnetic presence whether satirically teasing poor dim Maria, passionately wooing Sofya, suddenly regretting it, bumming money off the local rich man and throwing it away, or finally succumbing to men-behaving-badly depression in grimy underwear. Irresistible. At 20, Chekhov never trimmed the work down from six hours, gave it a name or saw it performed: but Hare’s version is tight, wickedly witty , emotionally honest and rife with snortingly funny one-liners . It is not as confusing at it might be, but fabulous entertainment, increasing pace with sudden entrances of all and sundry, often shouting and in ridiculous hats. It makes you reflect that this Chekhov – able to mix broad observational comedy with harsh shafts of painful feeling – is an ancestor of Ayckbourn and sitcom as much as of the greater modern names.
IVANOV was the young Chekhov’s first produced play , more tightly focused on the central character: Geoffrey Streatfield is depressive, disappointed , self-lacerating, self-pityingly remorseful and broke: out of love with his dying Jewish wife and beguiled by the lovely Sasha, his creditor’s daughter. Olivia Vinall (who is in all three plays) is luminous, blondely angelic and gloriously tempting, but here firmly bossy – a one-woman “ambulance corps” for hopeless Ivanov – “My job in life is to understand him!”. Her family elders , in a memorable upmarket party scene, are variously awful and hilarious and rampagingly hungry, but Chekhov always allows gleams of redemptive humanity: Jonathan Coy is superb as the put-upon father, begging the pair of them just to live a normal flawed life and get on with it. Darkness rears up in one horrifying three-word shout which makes the audience gasp: then room and wife sink through the floor as if in despair and Ivanov reels off, wrecked, into the trees, reeds and water of the bleak beautiful set which serves all three plays.
The last is best known, but still vibrates with youthful melodrama and fury. THE SEAGULL is the tale of geeky struggling author Konstantin (an intensely felt performance by Joshua James) , his love for innocent Nina (Vinall shining again) and his diva mother, a bravura Anna Chancellor with a pretentious, weak, famous lover Trigorin (Streatfield again). The moment when she has rugby-tackled him to stay with her, and he stares helplessly over her shrieking head mutely appealing to the audience, was met with gales of laughter.
All three plays have fireworks, real and emotional; all end in a single pistol-shot; all have glancing references to the figure of Hamlet, both embraced and toughly challenged. All three show us Chekhov not – as we know him from plays like The Cherry Orchard – as a gentle dispassionate observer, but as a fierce youth.
He was starting on his lifetime themes of frustration, debt, passion, escape, city versus country values, human absurdity magnified by vodka, and suicide . He is young, not afraid to mix hilarity and satire with deep shafts of complicated feeling. The final curtain call on the three-play day brings everyone on: McArdle (I am happy to say) back in his long underpants as the battered Byron of the first play , not as the a sober prim doctor he plays in the second. We cheered them all to the echo. If you’ve time for only one play, Platonov is funniest and The Seagull the most wrenching. But all three are wonderful.
Box Office 020 7452 3000 through September. 7 more 3-day-plays on sale.