At the Olivier Theatre on the South Bank it is now possible – if you have the stamina – to see, on one day, the first three plays written by the great Russian dramatist, Anton Chekhov. The plays were written between 1878 and 1896 and, while Platonov and Ivanov feel like early works, The Seagull shows that Chekhov has found his mature voice. Whether it is a voice you want to listen to is another matter. All the plays are set in the great rural hinterland of Russia where – in Chekhov’s view – boredom, self-loathing, and debt reign; and where the weather is always hot and oppressive and neighbours live in a perpetual state of interdependence that swings between hesitant affection and drunken hostility.
Platonov tells the story of a provincial schoolmaster who has failed to live up to his early promise and now lives a life of disappointment, enlivened only by insulting his male neighbours and seducing his female neighbours. Ivanov is about a landowner who has tried and failed to modernise his estate and who is now sinking beneath the weight of failure, debt, and depression, despite being adored by his sickly wife and his neighbour’s beautiful young daughter. The Seagull focuses on the havoc created by famous actress Irina Arkadina who, on her visits home to the family estate, lets loose her neurotic and narcissistic personality, bringing misery and destruction to those who live there.
All three plays take place on almost the same set. The wide open spaces of the Olivier stage are filled with leafless trees for outdoor settings. House interiors are added by an ingenious set of walls, windows, and doors that drop from above and chairs and tables that rise from below. In The Seagull, the back of the stage is flooded to create the lake that provides an important scenic impact in the story. Lighting effects are equally well designed and all three plays look wonderful.
Some actors appear in all three plays while others appear in one or two. James McArdle is a superb Platonov – a cad but a damned attractive cad – in the first play and then plays a self-righteous prig of a doctor in Ivanov. Olivia Vinall has major roles in all three plays; brilliant in the first two, perhaps a little emotionally inert as Nina in The Seagull. Geoffrey Streatfield as Ivanov seems a bit ‘one note’ but that is perhaps inherent in Chekhov’s characterisation. Towards the end of the play another character says to Ivanov “these depressions of yours are a thundering bore”. I was ready to agree. Anna Chancellor is a wonderful Arkadina. The moment when she reverts to character after tearfully imploring her lover not to leave her for Nina is such a brilliantly accomplished change of gear the audience gasped. Joshua James, Nikolai in Platonov and Konstantin in The Seagull, is brilliant in the first play, less convincing as he changes gear between the first and last act of the second.
It is impossible to do justice to all the fine acting and to the sharp insights provided by director Jonathan Kent in this brief review. Two of the plays are well worth seeing; but Ivanov is very hard work. The problem lies in Chekhov’s world view and his take on rural Russia in the decades before the revolution. For all the many merits of these productions, angst and ennui do not make for an entirely satisfying evening at the theatre.