Fringe Online 2021
Jermyn Street’s Tom Littler has again led a groundbreaking team. The smallest producing theatre in the West End through lockdown has become the largest. The Footprints Festival boasts 43 shows acted live – with a limited audience – and streamed online over three months. Michael Pennington here stars in his own acclaimed one-man show Anton Chekhov, directed by himself, with a few props and no requirement for a sound design. Lighting’s a gentle steady peach from the house team, more stark ice-blue in the second. Camera work from several angles (Director Mark Swadel, Operator Balazs Weidner), including seventy-five degrees overhead, are deftly sequenced.
Some anecdotes strewn across Chekhov’s half-lit self-revelations might today meet a less ready smile: ‘Medicine I’m legally married to, literature is my mistress. When I get tired of the one I take up the other.’ ‘I don’t like the theatre, I can’t stand the actors.’ But we know these, that he married an actor. There’s much we don’t.
At the Jermyn Street Footprints Festival, Michael Pennington stars in his own acclaimed one-man show Anton Chekhov, directed by himself, with a few props – writing desk, chairs – and no requirement for sound design. Lighting’s a gentle steady peach from the house team in the first half, more stark ice-blue on occasion in the second. There’s tenebrous fades too. Camera work from several angles, including seventy-five degrees overhead, are deftly sequenced.
Dying of TB at forty-four – and Pennington pauses to cough desperately – we sense we’re attending one of those rallyings the disease was famed for. Pennington stands, stops in his small peaked cap, points to a painting a landscape on an easel, or one propped of himself; shuffles across, sits, scribbling occasionally in his large ledger. ‘We lie down with a book, even if it’s only Turgenev.’ You sense Tregorin might have a father. ‘Tolstoy terrifies me… he says I’m worse than Shakespeare.’ Later as the crowds applaud Tolstoy in his box, not Uncle Vanya’s 1898 premiere, Tolstoy asks: ‘Where’s the drama?
With a gallimaufry of modulation, laughs and coughs, Pennington’s Chekhov furnishes a riveting reproof to that: drama shrunk just to one man reminiscing his time spent as a writer. Tolstoy might ask Pennington too: ‘Where’s the drama?’ Pennington with admirable patience towards both giants over his shoulder proves it’s the humanity of Chekhov’s harsh upbringing, father a freed serf, that grips us, the patina of living. Or how Chekhov here lusts gently after two Dutch girls, envisions a quiet life as a Dutch pastor with chopped herring. Or those Armenian girls. That’s before 1915 and the massacre. Chekhov, Pennington’s Chekhov would riposte, would find himself boring. But then here he is, showing off his eco-systems.
Pennington occasionally sashays into Chekhov’s stories – of huntsmen, for instance – to flesh factual accounts. But Chekhov’s letters and travel writings provide almost inexhaustible supplies for a seventy-five minute show such as this.
‘My brother feels I should die before becoming really famous, because of my origins’ Pennington’s subject is close to the written life here in the letters. ‘Buy this book, or you’ll get a punch in the mouth.’ And if you’ve fallen asleep reading Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, you’re not alone.
There is however an interval after Chekhov makes an Astrov-like farewell to a young woman, as a doctor going on his rounds. It’s the career-dividing journey of 1890. ‘My Siberian hostess wiped this on her behind and gave it to me’ the now hatless Pennington holds up a spoon walking back on with another tea. There’s more life, more pity, more incidents drawing conclusions; in short a valedictory note.
Pennington traces a mildly spluttering arc of health, crossed with the narrative of a vigorous life and the fact we’re eavesdropping at a key moment. So he bisects weariness with epiphanic bursts of activity, illustrating a point.
That Siberian trip of summer-autumn 1890 was crucial for Chekhov, moving him from his success as a famous short story writer (most of his 600 were written by this time) to fledgling but not yet successful dramatist. His times in exilic Sakhalin Island – the man sworn to murder the wife he loved, an account of a flogging – map that clear-eyed Chekhovian compassion. It suggests how Chekhov the dramatist emerged from the short-story writer, relocating to the Crimea. There’s his artist friend Levitan who shot a seagull and placed it at Chekhov’s sister’s feet. But Chekhov knows the state of Levitan’s heart in other ways too.
And indeed Pennington/Chekhov becomes Astrov, delighting in those famed deforestation maps laid flat on the floor, tilted in boyish delight to rue decay. Pennington’s particularly informed in how Chekhov recruits his own traits, foibles and experiences into writing himself into a clutch of supreme plays. A desire to have written all he can, to leave without regrets. Both quietism and urgency fight for possession.
But quietly. Pennington’s character is ever understated, ever the amused ironist. That takes a special refinement of register so the audience tunes down to the intimacy afforded by this theatre.
How should we react to meeting Turgenev’s ghost telling us we’ve not got long? There’s revenge. But who’d want to live forever? And there’s another reassuring meeting. Pennington’s every gesture, that interrogative visitor, that sip of champagne conveys his absorption. The nearest we’ll come to meeting Chekhov. A masterclass.