Young Chekhov: Three-play day

Spending a full day (11 hours from first curtain up to last curtain call) watching three of Chekhov's early plays (hence the 'Young' of the title) may not sound like the most fun day out in London – his themes covering hopelessness, lack of personal fulfilment, depression and of course, tragically necessary death, often at one's own hands. But seeing them this way (though you can see them separately too) – with its cross-casting and variations on similar themes – offers a unique experience to any fan of theatre, with some exceptional performances, ongoing recognisable self-reflection and huge (possibly unexpected) belly laughs throughout.

A quality of acting and staging that ignites a passion for the theatrical form.

The three plays aren't one story (like Harry Potter!) but explore similar ideas. However, rather than feel repetitive or boring, they build to become more rich and more attainable as they absorb you into Chekhov's world. As the style with which he plays the unending search for happiness becomes recognisable, we feel at ease with his almost anti-theatrical way of jumping between farce, melodrama, breaking of the fourth wall and self-aware monologues, and accept and understand his 'tricks'.

Hatred of hypocrisy but distaste for truth abound in this world, where individuals battle to exist in a society where money and love are the goals to achieve in order to be seen to have a fulfilled and worthwhile life. And of course attaining either of these goals never leads to the expected satisfaction - being simply water to try and seal the hole in the bucket of one's own life. Those who have money hide it and won't share it - and those who don't, constantly seek it for no reason other than to have it (seen clearly in Platonov when one borrows money from another just to immediately give it away). And the idea of love - as for most of us - is much stronger as just an idea (to cover up the loneliness of our selves) than the reality of what two people being together brings.

At the heart of each play are various love triangles - even love heptagons - but seeing all the plays together makes it clear that these aren't really love stories or quests; love, as money, is merely a way to find tangible purpose in life. From Platonov telling his wife that he's giving up his philandering ways as "I don't want to be happy, I want to be with you" to Lebedev (in Ivanov) saying, without emotion, about his wife "I wish to God you'd just die" and Masha in The Seagull dealing with her unrequited love by accepting an unloving marriage because "when I get married, I can forget about love" - seeing these cumulatively replaces the idea of a single desire for love with a common display of our strive for inner-happiness to be gained from others rather than our own lives. And the repeated references to the heat, the desire to escape (usually to Paris), borderline alcoholism throughout and throwaway threats of "I'll kill myself" just add to the constant desire for more overtaking the satisfaction we should all have with today.

David Hare's adaptations cleverly switch between the dated prosaic theatricality and a very modern, self-aware humour, constantly shattering the naturalism we may expect. There are multiple references to this not being what it is ("He sounds like a male novelist making love to a female novelist" cuts through the previous romanticism; "This romance is the stuff of novels... you're in love with Hamlet" and "Unrequited love just exists in novels" again, when seen together, remove the importance of love as a goal in life and mocks us for believing it's real).

Jonathan Kent draws on his experience and love for high operatic melodrama by applying elements of farce to his direction (society groups rush on and off stage and are larger than life, counterbalancing the soul-searching soliloquies to continually shake our comfort - though possibly with differing levels of effectiveness). Being imbued in this style over the day makes the impact all the stronger than taking apart each play on its own.

Platonov

Probably the least known of the three, Platonov (it's a hard 'o' after the 't' if you say it out loud) is possibly also the most accessible. Introduced before he arrives as "misogyny on wheels", he's really more disenfranchised with not having achieved his dreams of being a politician or a poet so has settled into marriage and berates himself for not doing more with his life (he's 27 at this point - the age at which this dissatisfaction appears increases through the plays as Chekhov himself aged). Refusing to fit into society, he is both hated and idolised, neither of which satiates him and so his quest for fulfillment is obviously futile.

James McArdle's performance is mesmerising as he manages to make us love him with a childishness and humour reminiscent of David Tennant's Hamlet (not just because of the accent I assure you!) that stop us hating his arrogance and refusal to accept responsibility for his own actions. Whilst there is much busy stage activity of 'society' running on and off from all angles mid-conversation, he is aware of that too - and the scenes between him and Nina Sosanya's Anna Petrovna ("an educated...immoral woman") manage to be still, beautiful, heart-wrenching and funny all at the same time. The play I pre-conceived may bore me, drew me in and blew me away. (****)

Ivanov

Ivanov is the hardest to maintain energy for and felt like the weaker middle episode here. The 'need' for money and love are still intrinsic but here we focus more on the depression that fuels the desire for fulfilment. Once again an anti-hero, Ivanov's acceptance of - and lack of ability to deal with - his depression (this time, life has 'been wasted' at 35) is seen by others as petulance ("these depressions are such a bore" he is told) though as the audience, we should be feeling his real inner struggles with his demons. Geoffrey Streatfeild does a fine job of showing his "rage is speaking but the rage tells the truth", but it starts at such as high level of shouty emotion that it has nowhere to go, the farcical drama of society takes over and no one seems to be listening to each other. It lacks the opposing depth of Platonov and so even though the structure is similar, the empathy is less forthcoming. (***)

The Seagull

The Seagull moves us into a more ensemble piece and a more 'traditional' and known Chekhov. There's a feeling that the same themes have moved on with the desire for love being from the wider world as a whole rather than just from an individual. And this desire is not just in the young here but in the older (early 40s) supposedly successful characters. Whilst the young actress Nina (Olivia Vinall giving her third powerfully emotional and yet unrecognisable performance from her others) and neurotic writer Konstantin (Joshua James looking like he might explode within himself - such is his pain) feel that they will never achieve greatness, his actress mother Irina clings on to her memories of her (questionable) talent in order to feel alive, and her partner - successful writer Trigorin - is as arrogant with the power given by his success as he is disdainful of those who respect it (leading him to "destroy (the seagull) for no other reason than he can").

The elements of light farce here are nearly gone but this feels like a natural shift to stillness and quiet horror, being the denouement of the three plays. It's Anna Chancellor's camp, larger than life Irina who delivers the black humour in spades as she sashays effortlessly (but with purposeful effect) around the stage, teasing her hair, fixing her make-up and shifting her breasts as she strives for attention and cuts people down - whilst her desperate neediness clearly bubbles throughout. For me, her performance is the standout of all three plays, moving from hilarity to aching loneliness in a flicker. (****)

This is not just theatre for the already-knowing as each has ways of welcoming in an audience and should not be seen as just the sad endings each is famous for (which are always thrown away as if the least important element of the story) but as wry observations on all our lives. If you see one, I would suggest Platonov, closely followed by The Seagull (and only coming first due to it being less performed and so less likely for you to have preconceptions on). But if you can see all together, then you are in for an exhilarating experience that makes your appreciation of each part quite different as being one element of a whole. A quality of acting and staging that ignites a passion for the theatrical form.

Reviews by Simon Smith

Dorfman Theatre

Home, I'm Darling

★★
Olivier Theatre

Exit the King

Royal Court Theatre

Pity

★★
National Theatre

The Lehman Trilogy

★★★★★
Lyttelton Theatre

Julie

★★★★
Olivier Theatre

Translations

★★

Performances

Location

The Blurb

The Young Chekhov trilogy opened to overwhelming acclaim at Chichester Festival Theatre last year. The company now come to the National, offering a unique chance to explore the birth of a revolutionary dramatic voice.

Performed by one ensemble of actors, each play can be seen as a single performance (see Platonov, Ivanov and The Seagull) or enjoyed together, either over different days or as a thrilling all-day theatrical experience.

Adapted by David Hare whose stage plays include Skylight, Pravada and screenplays include The Hours and The Reader, directed by Jonathan Kent (Gypsy, Private Lives).