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FringeReview UK 2016


National Theatre, London

Genre: Classical and Shakespeare, Drama, Mainstream Theatre, Theatre

Venue: National Theatre, Oliver


Low Down

Jonathan Kent’s Young Chekhov trilogy in translations by David Hare transfers from its triumphant Chichester season last autumn to the National’s Olivier. Again it features Tom Pye’s flexible design dovetailed into the Oliver space, itself an echo of Chichester’s. Jonathan Dove’s music, cello and piano feature Klezmer movingly at key points. As elsewhere, the composer plays keyboard.


Jonathan Kent’s Young Chekhov trilogy in translations by David Hare transfers – now playing in chronological order – from its triumphant Chichester season last autumn to the National’s Olivier.


Again it features Tom Pye’s flexible design with its stripped boards and trees counterpointing pop-up interiors and period furniture, dovetails into the Oliver space, itself an echo of Chichester’s. At the final moment the façade lifts to unforgettable effect. Jonathan Dove’s music, cello and piano featuring the much-suffering wife of Ivanov invokes Klezmer movingly at key points. As elsewhere, the composer plays keyboard.


The ensemble shifts in this repertory company brought together by Jonathan Kent, become as fascinating as other features in this remarkable season. Here, Geoffrey Streatfeild – also Tregorin in The Seagull – takes over the title role originally allotted to Samuel West. Streatfeild inhabits this role like a stooping question-mark, a lanky laureate of the Russian superfluous man, whose fight against this stereotype from modern farming to loving modern women powers a catastrophic self-loathing.


James McArdle, who dominated Platonov as the eponymous hero, takes the very different temperature of the disapproving doctor Lvov, antagonist of his other self as well as Ivanov. The entire cast – even his patient – mock Lvov‘s self-preening ‘honesty’ which counterpoints the very different equivocal kind Ivanov relentlessly shines blackly on himself – the drama’s troubled major theme.


Contemporary critics thought the priggish doctor, half in love with Ivanov’s dying wife and clearly deluded, was upright, the moral centre of the play. This infuriated Chekhov. This doesn’t bear the servile ‘honest’ as in ‘honest Iago’ with its condescensions and inversions, but Chekhov’s point is that unexamined honesty, a lack of tact, delicacy, is base, uncivilised, bound to inflict suffering.


McArdle on the other hand if not proving them right, sparks up tension in almost visible footlights every time he arrives. His angular self-deluding hatred and smoothed-down hair and cheeks compresses into a Caledonian hiss worthy of John Knox. It’s a gift of a part.


The title role confers a tortuous thinking that has to be visible, and Streatfeild conveys this in every twitch and bulging vein. He tramels the journey in his body, his slumping about on chaise-longs completes the architecture of despair it’s meant to have. Self-loathing is brought out with the deftest pitch, the inwardness taking Ivanov on a one-way plunge throbs conviction.


This is certainly the most shocking, most brilliantly dissembling play of the trio, or of any Chekhov play. The seedily despairing Ivanov, an idealist who like Platonov has gone to seed, overhears himself in his self-loathing, making a tragic farce out of his own self-consciousness as well as in his failure to transform his estate. He volubly denies being Prince Hamlet though, but here he’s clearly meant to be, unlike Prufrock protesting too much. Still, there’s no devastated serenity involving the fall of sparrows. The similarities with Platonov end too because Ivanov although also playing on (only) two women’s affections is much less comedically energized, and so much at one extreme the kind of Russian who makes the legendary slugabed Oblomov seem a demon of industry.


Olivia Vinall as the young Sasha – a woman born to reform literally die-hard idealists, she feels – is outstandingly heedless. Her ardent rescuer complex rides roughshod over Ivanov’s dying wife, and appealing as Vinall makes her, she etches in the idealist’s passionate ruthlessness that just edges away from the outright callous, and ends callow.


The most harrowing scenes though reside with the dying Anna Petrovna (née Sarah Abramson), a Jewish woman cut off by her family for marrying Ivanov, gracefully deaf to casual anti-Semitism masquerading as social gambit in this play. Chekhov loathed anti-Semitism; during the composition of Ivanov he was engaged to a Jewish actress and later famously married another. The number of repellent casually-dropped remarks mightn’t have shocked a first audience: that was what Chekhov was fighting.


Nina Sosanya’s ardent but dignified pleading finally shudders to explosive confrontations with Iavanov, following two scenes where Sasha intrudes. When Petrovna finally realises Iavanov no longer loves her and Iavanov cannot bear this in himself it becomes almost unbearable to watch. Already exasperated with a trail of intrusive neighbours including Sasha – leading to their own first spat – Ivanov’s final cornering where he knows he’ll blurt out obscenity, is where Streatfeild rises to his explosively shuddering best. ‘You dirty Jew’ is still one of the most shocking lines in drama, and the even worse transgression revealing to Petrovna that she’s dying, is only blunted since it’s not made sufficiently clear by Chekhov till now that she didn’t know this. The audience rightly gasp at the first revelation, but understandably miss the second. In that moment Ivanov’s destination as well as Petrovna’s is announced, out of a spitting hulk.


Support from other women comes particularly from Lucy Briers’ Zinaida, Sasha’s mother and host who snuffs out every candle as soon as the guests leave a room, leaving us in her own moral dimness. The rampage of guests searching for food in this niggardly establishment affords light relief. There’s memorably-etched characterisation from dodgy estate manager Borkin, Des McAleer crassly trying to extort promises from Peter Egan’s shambling misanthropic Uncle Shabyelski that he’ll marry a widow to close a deal. Their drink-duetting and mild tormenting of Ivanov in his own study works like a kind of double suspension in a little French clock, all pulls and pendulums. They chime. It drives Ivanov insane.


It’s Jonathan Coy’s Lebedev as father of the future bride Sasha though, who rises from put-upon husband to empathic moral centre of the sane. The only other university-educated character as he sees it, he tries hard to sift Ivanov but abjectly fails to fathom him. Coy’s humanity however, glimmers like one of Zinaida’s candles through Lebedev‘s failures as an assertive man. He lends his daughter fragile hope perhaps, a touch more humanity herself, after the punctuation mark ending each of these early, mesmerising plays. This was an exceptionally fine production before: it’s now outstanding.