A Fresh Look At Chekhov

When Chekhov lay dying in a spa town in Germany's Black Forest, his doctor ordered oxygen, only to have the playwright insist it was too late and request a bottle of champagne instead. It was a curiously appropriate end to the life of a man whom the celebrated English actor Michael Pennington describes as "a strange, eccentric, driven oddball." Now, on the eve ofthe centenary of Chekhov's death, Pennington's textured new biography, "Are You There Crocodile: Inventing Anton Chekhov" as well as U.K. revivals of two of Chekhov's best-known works--reveals complex new layers to the Russian writer known for his use of familiar language to lay emotions bare.

Over time, Chekhov seems only to grow more relevant. He died the year before Russia's first revolution in 1905. "He was on the cusp of some extraordinary historical events," says Pennington, "and there's always a prescience [in his work], though his feet remain firmly in the 19th century." Pennington began to question his assumptions about Chekhov--"I thought he was a sort of bourgeois writer"--during a train journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway. He discovered that almost a century before, the playwright had made the same arduous trip--while ill with tuberculosis--to investigate the treatment of inmates at the Sakhalin prison camp. "He had a tremendous passion for change," Pennington notes. "He wanted to do good."

At Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre, director Greg Hersov went through a similar reappraisal, if his edgy production of "The Seagull" (through May 10) is any clue. To test whether the play, often considered one of Chekhov's most difficult, resonates with modern audiences, he has paired it with the world premiere of Canadian writer Brad Fraser's "Cold Meat Party," which deals with the similar themes of fame, death, art and unrequited love. It's an inspired choice, giving audiences a fresh rapport with Chekhov's classic. "You'd think that in a period play, relationships would be defined by repression," says Hersov. "In 'The Seagull' they're not. The idea of what bohemia is, of intellectual, sexual, spiritual freedom, is central to both plays. This idea of embracing sweeping changes of mood is what Chekhov initiated."

Performed by the same cast on alternate nights, the plays highlight the depth of insight in Chekhov's dark drama, drawing out its hidden allusions. In Fraser's fast-paced, witty play, old chums--including a filmmaker, an HIV-positive pop star and a right-wing politician--gather for the funeral of one of their contemporaries. The filmmaker's daughter struggles to forge her own identity in her mother's shadow--just as in "The Seagull" the writer, Konstantin, responds to his mother's indifference to his writing by tearing it up.

Christopher Hampton's new version of "Three Sisters" at London's Playhouse Theatre (through May 18), also reveals a different side of Chekhov. Starring Kristin Scott Thomas as a brittle, overwrought Masha, the production emphasizes the Chekhovian irony that the characters who most long for change tend to be the ones for whom nothing happens. Like Konstantin in "The Seagull," desperate to create "new artistic forms" but never to succeed, the sisters' dream of moving to Moscow gradually slips away. Once thought too gloomy to be performed in the West End, Chekhov has been rediscovered as a satirist, thanks largely to new translations by playwrights like Hampton and Michael Frayn, instead of by academics. Hampton's "Three Sisters" inspires fits of laughter in the audience.

Still, no one appreciates Chekhov's passion for living--"Every hour is precious," he once wrote--like Pennington. For 20 years the actor has appeared in an engaging one-man show based on Chekhov's letters, plays and short stories. Likewise, his rich, colorful biography digs right to the heart of Chekhov's character--irascible, generous, demanding one last taste of life's sweetness even in the face of death.

A Fresh Look At Chekhov | News