I always thought it was a bit unfair that Willy Russell’s Rita was castigated for her “Do it on the radio” response to the essay about the problems with staging Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. For one thing – she’s reading English Literature, not training to be a director. And secondly, Ibsen was Norwegian the last time I looked, and Peer Gynt was written in Danish too. Personally, I think she nailed it. David Hare’s response to the same question is to bring the play bang up to date, set it in Dunoon (yes, Dunoon; I don’t know why either), and had the job over to the brilliantly inventive team of Jonathan Kent (Director) and Richard Hudson (Designer). Simples.
I’ve had a copy of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt languishing in my drama bookshelf since 1978 and never really had the motivation to open its pages – till now, that is. Whilst watching this new production I just got the sense that it was probably a pinpoint-accurate updating of the 150-year-old classic. So when I got home I speed-read the original, and, guess what – I was right. The structure of Ibsen’s original play firmly (but fairly) frames Hare’s new work. Ibsen’s five acts have become a more manageable three acts under Hare – Ibsen’s first three acts become Hare’s first act, then Act Four becomes Act Two and Act Five becomes Act Three, if you get my drift. Yes, there are two intervals. You’re in this for the long haul. The bar does very good business.
But it’s not just the structure that bridges the 150 year gap. Peer (now Peter) still makes up stories that make his mother Åse (now Agatha) fume. He still leaves his mother on the roof, he still storms Ingrid’s wedding, she still refuses to come out of the bedroom until he whisks her away, has his wicked way (we presume) and dumps her. He still perplexes Mads Moen (now Spudface) with stories of his Invisibility Cloak (hands up who assumed J K Rowling thought of that first?) He still encounters the Woman in Green, the Trolls, the Boyg; he still gets robbed in North Africa (although in a much more 21st century way); he still appears as a prophet to Anitra, he still gets swept up in Begriffenfeldt’s asylum, he is still stopped in his tracks by The Button Moulder; he still breaks Solveig’s (now Sabine’s) heart. It’s an extraordinary feat of transposing the same sequence of 19th century folkloric events into 21st century Scotland.
Gynt’s picaresque journey through life is a constant delight. No matter how much of a liar or a cad he is, you’re always on his side – although you’re also quite happy to see him deservedly suffer every so often. His constant search for pleasure – whether it be sexual, financial, influential, or whatever – gets him into endless scrapes which provide episodic entertainment that build up to create a full life but a meaningless one. But there’s always a final reckoning; and it’s in Sabine’s arms and heart that he realises where his place was all along. Sometimes a play ends on a note of uncertainty, leaving the audience to come to their own conclusions. Not in this case. Ibsen/Hare make the purpose of Gynt’s journey perfectly clear.
It’s worth pointing out, in case you were expecting something po-faced and worthy, that Hare has taken the lively and rather insolent nature of Ibsen’s original text and created a very funny play, choc-full of modern references and terrific characterisations. This is not the doom-laden Ibsen of Hedda Gabler and Ghosts, but a much younger man’s play; in fact, it reminded me of the unexpected comedy of the young Chekhov’s Platonov – although that might have been because I saw James McArdle in that role too – more of him later.
The vast Olivier stage is the perfect venue for this wide-ranging, high-level imagination play. At the beginning, blue sky and clouds are projected over a back wall of doors and one opens to reveal Peter Gynt, his head already in the clouds before he even starts speaking; a visual nod to the surrealism of Magritte, an unexpected flight of stairs bringing him down to the real world, as though the play was starting with a deus ex machina rather than ending with one. Stage right, a grassy bank with a few surprise traps where a head can bob up (or, indeed, an onion); stage left, a black void that can be usefully transformed into the Hall of the Mountain King, a desert oasis or a wedding party. For the fifth act, storm projections create a magnificent effect of a ship at sea. For three-and-a-quarter hours (maybe more) the show’s visuals create a highly dramatic impact on your brain, and in many cases it’s the visual tableaux that you remember most in the days that follow.
There were three reasons why I particularly wanted to see this production. 1) I’ve never actually seen Peer Gynt before (don’t judge me). 2) I’ve long been an admirer of David Hare and even on those rare occasions where he does put a foot wrong it’s always a brave and fascinating foot. 3) James McArdle. He’s one of our most arresting actors and I don’t know why he isn’t better known. He was a brilliant ingénu Alexey in A Month in the Country and a hilarious lead in Platonov. I understand he was amazing in Angels in America, but sadly we didn’t see that. He has, however, matured into a first-class leading actor and he’s barely off stage for the whole of the show, giving us a devastatingly brilliant performance of a lovable rogue, with all his sarcasms, flights of fancy, dejections and everything else that Ibsen and Hare throw at their hero. A truly outstanding performance.
Ann Louise Ross does a great job of conveying Agatha’s fighting spirit and her love of her son with her complete fury at his lies and his folly. There are a few other featured roles, but the nature of the play is that the rest of the cast form an ensemble that populate Gynt’s life and times whether it be in Dunoon, North Africa or somewhere lurking in the Hall of the Mountain King. Tamsin Carroll is both bewitching and alarming as the Woman in Green and Anitra, Jonathan Coy gives great bluster as Bertram and alarming sincerity as Begriffenfeldt, Anya Chalotra plays Sabine with a terrific blend of feistiness and calm resignation, and Oliver Ford Davies is perfect casting as the authoritative but reasonable Button Moulder. Amongst the minor roles Lorne MacFadyen as Duncan, Ezra Faroque Khan as the Captain and Guy Henry as Ballon and the Weird Passenger give great support. But everyone throws their heart and soul into creating a very impressive theatrical experience.
It’s running at the National Theatre just until 8th October. Glad I caught it before it closed! You should too!
I saw my first Chekhov at the age of fifteen – Three Sisters, directed by Jonathan Miller – and I was hooked. I saw Jonathan Miller in the bar but was too shy to say hello – and to be fair he didn’t look like he’d welcome an approach, as he looked like he was having a thoroughly miserable time. As a result, I asked for the Penguin edition of the Complete Chekhov as part of my sixteenth birthday present, and I read it avidly. I even recall hiding away in the locker room at school during break so that I could get Uncle Vanya finished.
So, the prospect of a full day of Chekhov was perhaps a little bit of a hard sell to Mrs Chrisparkle, although I was keen as mustard. Three plays in one day: 10.30 am, 3 pm, 7.30pm. I think she equated it with the heaviest possible day at the Edinburgh Fringe; the very thought of it made her exhausted. Still, I lured her with the prospect of lunch at the Minerva Brasserie and a gluten-free fry up breakfast at Spires’ on Sunday. She caved in. Less than half an hour into the first play and I could already tell she was loving it – and by the time we came to late night dinner at Cote, twelve hours later, she was adamant that she had been looking forward to it all along. Because I’m delighted to tell you, gentle reader, that these three plays, produced in old fashioned rep style at the Festival Theatre (all three on a Saturday) are a rare treat indeed. We’d seen the Ian McKellen production of The Seagull back in 2008 but couldn’t remember much about it because it was on New Year’s Day, we were frankly knackered, and had our eyes shut for most of the time (as did much of the audience). I’d seen Michael Frayn’s version of Platonov, Wild Honey, at the National in 1985, but hadn’t realised it was the same play. And although I’d read Ivanov all those years ago, neither of us had ever seen it, so this was a perfect opportunity to get up to date and immerse oneself in the output of the Young Chekhov. And the plays, the productions and the performances are without exception absolutely stunning.
By the time The Seagull had reached the stage, Chekhov was 36 years old; and given that he would die just eight years later of tuberculosis, it’s perhaps misleading to consider it the work of the “Young Chekhov”. Nevertheless, it’s still a good halfway point in his career to consider what went before as his earlier attempts and what followed as the more mature writer. The texts have been adapted by David Hare, who insists in his introduction that these are three completely individual plays that deserve to be considered individually and not just looked at as some kind of blur and a mere source for the themes that Chekhov would develop more fully in his later plays. Fair enough. However. When you watch all three on the same day; in the same theatre, with the same set, the same lighting, the same director, and many of the actors appear in two or even all three of the plays, it comes across as one big project – a theatrical vision that encourages the audience to make thematic comparisons. I was struck, for example, how, structurally, each of the three plays started in the same way. First, there would be a conversation between two people on stage, which would shortly be interrupted by another two people, of whom the more senior of the two continues a conversation they were already having offstage, and the two people already on stage join in with their conversation. Similarly, use of the same actor to portray similar characters emphasises how Chekhov frequently employs a “type” in his plays – the impoverished schoolteacher, the doctor, the uncle, the landowner, the merchant, the writer, the frumpy female relative, and, of course, the old retainer. Chuck in some actors and some military men and you have a smorgasbord of Russian characters that Chekhov could mix and match to create village life – a microcosm that reflects the macrocosm of Russia in its entirety.
The Seagull is quite frequently performed; Ivanov, less so; Platonov, rarely. So it is a delight to have a chance to see that very early play in this riveting production. There are differences of opinion as to how old Chekhov was when he wrote it; anything between 17 and 20. What is certain is that it was not performed in his lifetime – he wrote it for the rising star Maria Yermolova, who rejected it out of hand – and the manuscript that remained was rambling, unedited, and hugely long. David Hare has done an incredible job in creating a really full and vivid play out of these ashes. Many of the usual Chekhovian themes are there, but what really makes it stand out in comparison with the rest of his work is the comedy element. Ayckbourn has been likened to Chekhov for his observations of family life and his ability to juggle hilarity and tragedy in the same sentence. You’d have to go back over a hundred years to Richard Brinsley Sheridan, to find as many laugh out loud moments in a play as you find in the third act of Platonov; and I noticed several instances throughout the entire day when Chekhov gave us a comic twist to a tragic situation and I thought: “that’s Ayckbourn all over”. Platonov himself is a truly Ayckbournian creation – like Norman, in The Norman Conquests, attractive to women beyond all reasonable expectations without going out of his way to pursue them; just being playfully irreverent, primarily taking care of himself at the expense of others, wheedling his way out of awkward situations, loving others but not as much as he loves himself.
There is a lot of comedy in Platonov, some in Ivanov (mainly from the card-playing, food and drink-hunting guests of the Lebedevs), but precious little in The Seagull. At least sixteen years pass between them – Platonov was written circa 1880, Ivanov in 1887, and The Seagull in 1896, so he wasn’t exactly bashing out these full length plays in a frenzy. The level of comedy declines over the years, in the same ways as does his use of soliloquies. Platonov is full of characters proclaiming their confessional monologues alone on stage. However, there are just two such occurrences in both Ivanov and The Seagull, as Chekhov learned more subtle ways of revealing the inner self of his characters.
In all the plays, the characters seem completely affected by the weather – they’re either suffering from the stifling and oppressive heat, or they’re hiding from the damp air in the evening for the sake of their health. Being Russian, they’re martyrs to their alcohol, perhaps the one unifying source of comfort in the three plays and one that inevitably gives rise to some humour. But additionally you really get an understanding of how the ubiquitous vodka is used to bring all parts of society together – it’s just something that everyone understands and appreciates. All the plays deal with the subject of acting, and thus create an argument between artifice and reality, whether it’s by actually having actors as characters (like Arkadina and Nina in The Seagull), or by Nikolai’s taunting of Platonov that he doesn’t actually feel anything and any sentiment he offers is “just acting”; or Ivanov seeing himself as a Hamlet character.
You can see the roots of Chekhov’s theme that “life will always be better elsewhere”, which culminates in the Three Sisters’ desperate need to return to Moscow, with Glagolyev joining his dreadful son in Paris to enjoy life whilst he still can, and with Arkadina escaping back to Moscow to rid herself of irksome family ties. Naturally, the subject of loyalty and adultery are never far from Chekhov’s nib, and whenever there’s a revolver lying around, you just know there’ll be murder or suicide, committed by someone with what we would call today Mental Health issues, driven to distraction by the world around them.
But what of these productions? As I said earlier – they are stunning. Tom Pye’s set has enough individuality to reflect the differences between the plays but also enough unifying features to make it clearly all part of one endeavour. The great central space at the Festival theatre is given over to the garden for outside scenes and living rooms/studies for indoor scenes, with a useful two storey building on one side and a forest clearing on the other. I loved the use of the divider that sprang up from down below to create the back wall of Platonov’s schoolroom or Ivanov’s study; and the additional features that come into their own for each play – the lonely train track in Platonov, the front of stage river bank in Ivanov, the back of stage lake shore in The Seagull, all add some realistic magic to the proceedings. Mark Henderson’s evocative lighting also had many high impact moments, none perhaps as memorable as the silhouette of Ivanov at the back of the stage near the end of the play, providing us with a visual representation of what a loner he was. David Hare’s words bring Chekhov’s originals to superb, natural life – including the use of antisemitism shown by the characters in Ivanov, which still has the power to shock – the audience’s gasps were palpable.
And how about the performances? Equally stunning. A handful of actors appear in just one of the plays, several appear in two, and four absolute stalwarts appear in all three. Each play relies highly on a strong sense of ensemble performance, even though Platonov and Ivanov have eponymous characters at the centre of the action. James McArdle is a brilliant Platonov, quirky, confident, daring, and still essentially a louse – yet you can’t help liking him. You know that old saying that, deep down, women always prefer the bad boys? He’s proof positive of that. And he’s virtually unrecognisable as Doctor Lvov in Ivanov; soberly dressed, clean shaven, decent and moral – the complete opposite of the rather reprehensible schoolteacher. You can’t imagine a smile ever crossing his lips. His Anna Petrovna (in both plays, so Chekhov really must have liked the name) is Nina Sosanya. In Platonov, she’s splendidly gung-ho about not giving a damn about her debts and with a distinct charm that causes men to fall in love with her – a very strong performance of a strong character. In Ivanov, again it’s an opposite type of portrayal – in frail health, but still resolute of spirit and looking for the good in life, until her husband, piqued with cruelty and mental fragility, blurts out her hopeless prognosis.
Joshua James gives two excellent performances – I particularly liked him in Platonov, as the rather useless young doctor Nikolai, constantly teasing and sniping at the world, and especially at Platonov himself. The administering water scene at the end of the play was one of the best comedy-in-tragedy moments I’ve ever seen. As the troubled Konstantin in The Seagull, he is very effective as the young pup trying to assert himself in a household of patronising superiors, and at the end of the play, his neat and deliberate destruction of his papers was very moving (and much more suitable to the character, unlike Chekhov’s original stage directions which say he just throws them under the table). Elsewhere Platonov is studded with top quality performances – Jonathan Coy as the courtly failure Porfiri, and Mark Donald, totally vile as his spoilt, cruel son Kiril – a performance more memorable than you might have thought the role normally receives. There’s a wonderfully bright and hopeful Sergei played by Pip Carter, who becomes devastated when he discovers the truth about Platonov; he’s equally good in The Seagull as Medvedenko, where he brings out all the character’s pathetic, kick-me-I’m-a-puppy qualities.
Taking a couple of the smaller roles, Nicholas Day steals the first act of Platonov with a wonderfully warm and strangely outrageous performance as Ivan; and Sarah Twomey is brilliant as Maria Grekova who can’t bear to be kissed, a nerdy porcelain doll whom Platonov simply regards as a challenge. There’s a strong, threatening performance by Des McAleer as Osip – I loved his performances in the other plays too – and a wide-eyed enthusiastic performance by Olivia Vinall (another of the three-play stalwarts) as Sofya.
Samuel West leads the cast of Ivanov, wonderfully convincing as the self-obsessed, mentally unstable, cruel title character, almost visibly being eaten up by the black dog as he either retreats into inner nothingness or lashes out at those who care about him. I also enjoyed his rather self-effacing Trigorin in The Seagull, flattered by Nina’s attentions, overwhelmed by Arkadina’s, quietly feathering his own nest and just immune to the feelings of others – their feelings and emotions are mere words for him to write down in his notebook and use for his own benefit. Peter Egan gives two rumbustious performances as Shabyelski in Ivanov, and Sorin in The Seagull, and Lucy Briers is brilliant as the ghastly Zinaida in Ivanov, for whom money is everything; when Ivanov asks for a deferment of the loan she reacts as if he’d suggested a threesome with Putin. She also excels in the role of Polina in The Seagull, idly longing to run away with the Doctor, but saddled with her family commitments – and the appalling way she rejected her son-in-law’s goodbye kiss was worth the ticket cost alone. In addition, I have to mention the delightful performances of Emma Amos, showing how beautifully shallow Marfusha Babakina is; and of Beverley Klein, strutting her stuff as the redoubtable Avdotya with great comic timing.
And of course, there’s Anna Chancellor as Irina Arkadina, the actress who acts her emotions rather than feels them, who undermines her son’s attempts to impress and fit in, who rides roughshod over the feelings of others and does it all with charm and grace, although you never know when’s she might turn into a cobra and attack. But the whole cast of all three plays don’t put a foot wrong and everyone gives their very best to create these three insights into 19th century Russian society.
One of the most exciting, stimulating and revealing days of theatre I have ever enjoyed. A splendid vision, splendidly realised. The Young Chekhov season ends on 14th November, but there’s no way this remarkable experience should finish there. Surely the West End awaits?
Production photographs taken from the Chichester Theatre website
Every year we take an annual pilgrimage to Chichester to see a production at the Festival Theatre. This is our fifth year – and I reckon this is the second best production we’ve seen there. (The two part dramatisation of Nicholas Nickleby is still tops.)
When you enter the theatre you’re in for a treat. The stage appears enormous! You see the back of the Islayev house, and the garden – and the trees! Trees shoot up from the back of the stage and their branches overhang the auditorium right up to the back row, welcoming you into this idyllic environment. You get to see inside the house, through windows, pathways round the back, and the details of the garden – real plants, a real water pump (with real water!) This is the kind of realistic staging you can imagine would have been the norm in the Victorian era. And it feels luscious.
Then you have what turns out to be a damn good story. I’ve not seen or read this play before, and I was very impressed. A bored lady of the house with a wandering eye is bewitched by the enthusiastic and unsophisticated charms of the young tutor brought in to teach her son. Unfortunately, so is her 17 year old ward, who age-wise is a much more suitable match. Problems ensue.
It’s a marvellous production. Janie Dee plays Natalya, her soul aflame with love that she knows she really shouldn’t consider, with complete conviction. You get every nuance of her emotions from her expressive eyes, the twitches of her mouth, her languid/coy/come-on body postures. Wonderful. James McArdle, as the target of her affection Aleksey, does an excellent line in gauche enthusiasm, faltering delivery and youthful charm, a Turgenevian David Tennant. You can see how he has been completely overwhelmed by his surroundings and fallen in too deep, without being able to do anything about it. Michael Feast, as the family friend Michel, who has held a candle for Natalya for decades by the sound of it, is by turn impressively forlorn, confused, distressed and decisive. Kenneth Cranham, blustering about as the incompetent and corrupt Doctor Shpigelsky, and looking like Stinky Pete from Toy Story, also gives a first-rate performance. In fact there are no weak links in the cast at all.
I don’t know if it is the brilliance of Turgenev or Brian Friel who has adapted the work for this production, but I really enjoyed the use of soliloquies for Michel and Natalya, asking themselves about their inner feelings and reactions to a situation in a way that I know I do frequently. Very believable.
I also very much enjoyed the use of British regional accents to emphasise who’s “in” and who isn’t. The well-to-do members of the household have splendid clipped southern English accents, whereas the servants are from Lancashire; and the incomer Aleksey is pure Glasgow. The other accent employed was over-the-top German by Teddy Kempner as Herr Schaaf, which was appropriate for a role whose main reason it seemed to me was to laugh at his misuse of language.
Another marvellous aspect of this production is the terrific lighting. The lighting plot takes us through all times of the day and night and plays an important part in the realism of the design. Especially Natalya and Aleksey in the moonlit garden – you could almost touch the moonlight halo that framed their bodies, incredibly effective. It’s officially fabulous.
It’s a super production that certainly deserves a life hereafter.