Hanging out with Chekhov


THE PLAYS of Anton Chekhov have been a staple of the Irish repertoire for almost 100 years. The Russian writer was first introduced to Irish audiences in 1915, when Edward Martyn’s Irish Theatre performed Chekhov’s short comic sketch Swan Songas a prelude to a melancholic full-length production of Uncle Vanya.

Initially, Irish audiences were slow to warm to Chekhov’s radical naturalism, the infamous diarist Joseph Holloway reporting that the characters “all moved about awkwardly – spoke listlessly and were mightily depressive – one could imagine people wanting to shoot each other in Russia.”

Criticised for the triviality of its dialogue and the lack of stage action, Chekhov’s distinctive style became the subject of several parodies in Percy French’s popular variety shows. A Russian Hair and Curtain Raiser, for example, featured Orfulkoff (“an asthmatic subject”) and his fiancee Little Tileoff (“to have a slate missing, to be cracked”). Naturally, the play ended with the death of the betrothed couple.

In the aftermath of the 1916 Rising, however, faced with a political stasis that was not dissimilar to Chekhov’s pre-revolutionary Russia, Irish audiences began to find resonances with their own culture in his plays.

With the first production of The Cherry Orchardin 1917, the critics were unanimous in their opinion that the work was deeply prescient of the Irish situation. By the 1920s, Chekhov had even been translated into the Irish language; Micheál Mac Liammóir’s Irish-language version of The Proposal (Ag Iarraidh Mná)at Taibhdhearc na Gaillimhe in 1929 being one of the most successful Chekhov productions of the period. Indeed, it was MacLiammóir and his partner Hilton Edwards who became the true champions of Chekhov in Ireland, and throughout the 1930s and 1940s they mounted a new Chekhov production almost every year at the Gate. The Russian remains an important part of the Gate’s repertoire today.

Since the early 1980s, the presence of Chekhov in Irish theatre has been dominated by a number of adaptations and versions by leading Irish playwrights.

Thomas Kilroy’s 1981 version of The Seagullshifted the action to “the wilds of Galway” during the heady Land Wars of the 1880s. In 1990, Frank McGuinness’s version of Three Sisterscast Niamh, Sinead and Sorcha Cusack against their father Cyril at the Gate.

Tom Murphy’s version of The Cherry Orchardat the Abbey in 2004 maintained the play’s original Russian setting for a more subtle exploration of the parallels between both country’s peasant history: “A version,” Murphy wrote in an introductory note to the production, “is more subjective and more interpretatively open; it is speculative in its consideration of the ‘spirit’ of the original and seeks to translate that ‘spirit’ into a language and movement that have their own dynamic.”

Brian Friel, meanwhile, has directly tackled new versions of three of Chekhov’s major plays in the past 30 years and written several short theatrical homages to the Russian master. Indeed, much of Friel’s original work bears the mark of Chekhov’s distinctive dramaturgy (most notably Living Quartersand Aristocrats). When asked to comment on the relevance of Chekhov’s work to his own, Friel commented that: “Provincial Ireland resembles the provincial Russia of the 19th century, as it appears in Chekhov.”

It is the Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival, however, that has offered Irish audiences a chance to reflect on Chekov’s plays from an alternative, international perspective. Over the past five years, every one of Chekhov’s major plays – Uncle Vanya, The Seagull, The Cherry Orchard, The Three Sisters– has been performed at least once, by leading international companies, including the great Russian ensemble assembled by the English company Cheek By Jowl, whose Three Sisterswas performed for Irish audiences in its original language in 2009.

This year, however, two of the most diverse productions at the festival use Chekhov’s life rather than his work of as their starting point. Company Finzi Pasca’s Donka: A Letter to Chekhovcrafts a circus spectacle from the writer’s diaries and childhood memories, while Marina Carr’s new play 16 Possible Glimpses is a poetic response to the writer’s life and the myths that have enveloped him in the century since his death.

CHEKHOV’S OWN BIOGRAPHYis far more sensational than his plays, which tend to rely on inaction rather than incident for effect. Born in the small town of Taganrog on the Southern Russian coast in 1860, Chekhov’s family was caught up in the heady changing culture of 19th-century Russia; his grandfather having been emancipated from serfdom only 20 years before. The family became raznochintsy, persons of no settled rank, but this meant a constant struggle for upward mobility that eventually resulted in Chekhov’s father abandoning the family for fear of imprisonment for debt. As a consequence, the young Chekhov became responsible for providing for his siblings: “In my childhood,” he famously stated, “there was no childhood.” Chekhov began writing for the stage while he was still at school, inspired by the farces that he snuck into at the local playhouse.

Although several of his friends went on to become actors, he entered medical school in Moscow in 1879 after being awarded a local scholarship. In order to support his family while studying, he began to seek work as a journalist, writing short sketches, parodies, short stories, and serials, even providing captions for cartoons. By 1884, he had such a body of work behind him that his first collection, Fairy Tales of Melpomene,was published.

Although Chekhov had stopped writing for the stage, the subject matter was the theatre, and he would shortly begin to experiment with writing plays again.

Also in 1884, Chekhov, now 24, qualified as a doctor. Furthermore, it was the year when the tuberculosis that would eventually kill him revealed its first symptoms. However, he was so committed to his patients, to his research on the history of medicine (in 1890 he undertook an arduous 81-day journey to the Russian penal colony of Sakhalin), to providing for his family, to his various philanthropic medical campaigns, and to his writing, that he ignored his own prognosis, although the mood of his short stories bear dark subtexts of foreboding and mortality.

In 1887, Chekhov’s first full-length play, Ivanov, was performed in Moscow to a mixed response: “Theatre buffs say they’ve never seen so much ferment, so much unanimous applause-cum-hissing, and never, ever heard so many arguments as they saw and heard at my plays,” he later wrote.

It was almost 10 years before he had the confidence to try again, but when The Seagullpremiered in 1896, it was a resounding failure. Undeterred, Chekhov fell in with the Moscow Art Theatre, where the rest of his plays would be premiered.

The theatre adopted a seagull as its mascot and Chekhov became resident dramatist. Although the plays were popular successes, Chekhov found himself in constant battle with the producers, whom he thought misunderstood the nature of his writing. He always insisted that his plays were comedies, but they were rarely received that way. He was so disheartened by the reaction to Three Sistersin 1901, that he wrote to the actress Olga Knipper, who played Masha and would later become his wife, that he would “never write for the theatre again”.

He quickly changed his mind, and despite severe ill health, devoted himself to writing what would be his final play, with the proviso that it “will definitely be funny, very funny”. That play was The Cherry Orchard, which has become the most celebrated of Chekhov’s works, but the writer did not live to see how deeply its message resonated with the first stirrings of revolution in Russia; he died in June 1904 soon after its first performance.

Needless to say, no-one thought the play was funny. However, it did fulfil Chekhov’s most stringent theatrical ambition: to give audiences access to “life as it should be in addition to life as it is, and you are captivated by it”.

Dublin Theatre Festival highlights

The Blue Boy

BrokenTalker’s long anticipated documentary performance about clerical abuse, The Blue Boy, finally receives its premiere. Expect a fusion of moving live performances, recorded voices, and dance, combined with Seán Millar’s haunting score. This is bound to be one of the most important and exciting Irish premieres of the year.

The Blue Boy, Lir Theatre, October 8th-16th.

Shakespeare in German

Two of the most radical German theatre companies reveal themselves to be inspired by tradition, in a double bill based on Shakespeare plays. She She Pop & Their Fathers: Testamenttake on the emotional baggage of King Lear, while Gintersdorfer/Klaßen bring a postmodern thrust to the racial politics of Othello.

She She Pop & Their Fathers: Testament,Samuel Beckett Theatre, October 6th-9th.

Othello, C’est Qui?, Smock Alley Theatre, October 7th-9th.

The Lulu House

If the site of the James Joyce House isn’t enough to entice you, this collaboration between director Selina Cartmell and actors Lorcan Cranitch and Camille O’Sullivan is an exciting blend of silent film and live music that seeks to uncover the mystery of the tragic Lulu.

The Lulu House, James Joyce House, Until October 16th.

Donka runs at The Gaiety Theatre until Sunday. 16 Possible Glimpses opens at the Peacock Theatre next Wednesday, and runs until October 29th.

The Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival continues until 16th October