In all Chekhov plays, you can be certain of three things: a doctor will be one of the sympathetic characters, there will be an extended meditation on the value of hard work, and the scene where the characters first walk on the stage will be the one where they are as happy as they will ever be.
This new compendium of BBC-produced Chekhov plays contains over 1,000 minutes of material, acted by a who’s who of British theater. It includes all four of the great classics (The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard), as well as a smattering of early materials, radio plays, short-story adaptations and readings, and a very interesting piece on the current Moscow Arts Theater’s workshops with English student and professional actors.
The six-DVD set is exhaustive (and, if you view too much of it in one go, exhausting) but provides a real depth of insight into these plays and their possibilities. For instance, there are two interpretations of The Cherry Orchard, one a black-and-white film adaption by John Gielgud from the 1960s, the other a 1981 play-for-television version. What’s interesting — and what points to the continuing fascination of Chekhov for some of the world’s best actors — is that Dame Judi Dench appears in both. In the earlier version, she plays the effervescent teenager Anya, hair pulled back in a braid, eyes sparkling and ready to fall in love. Twenty years later, she is the spendthrift aristocrat Madame Ranevskaya, worn out by life and about to lose her cherry orchard. The acting styles in the two productions could not be more different, the older version broader, more theatrical, and revealing a certain sexual heat between the boorish Lopatkin and Madame Ranevskaya (Peggy Ashcroft in this version). The newer one, on the other hand, is more closely shot and subtler, adapted obviously for the small screen, yet it would be very hard to say which is better.
Uncle Vanya, too, is offered twice, once with a young Anthony Hopkins in the (sympathetic doctor) role of Astrov, and again with Ian Holm in the same position. Both have a tricky role, conveying real intelligence and integrity temporarily suspended in the presence of a beautiful woman. Personally, I’d go with Holm’s version, warmer, more self-reflecting and less blustery than Hopkins, but both have depth and insight into the role. Holm is also lucky to be working with the American actress Mary Elizabeth Mastroantonio, a one-time Tom Cruise co-star, who here shows a great deal of subtley and intelligence as Yelena. Her scene with Sonya (Rebecca Pidgeon, who is the wife of the play’s director, David Mamet), where the two drink a toast to enduring friendship just before the one betrays the other, is a small triumph of understated acting, telegraphing an ever-shifting array of emotions without any kind of excess.
You get even more insight into Uncle Vanya if you watch the bonus features, especially a documentary on the Moscow Arts Theater’s outreach program. The director, Oleg Efremov, and his actors workshop the play with British theater students, and it’s a revelation how the text falls apart in the hands of the less expert. Whole scenes simply make no sense or have no tension in the hands of these inexperienced actors (in fairness, on their first time through the play). There is a long discussion of one of the play’s most pivotal scenes, in which Yelena visits Astrov’s study to speak to him about Sonya, her stepdaughter, who has fallen in love with him. The scene, which brings Astrov and Yelena’s own attraction out into the open, starts out with a long disquisition on the environmental degradation of Russia (a very common theme in Chekhov). Why, the director asks, did Chekhov leave this speech in, when it stops the action? The actors’ answers, and the director’s wry stab at explaining tell you a lot about the complicated emotional currents and countercurrents at work in plays where no one says what he means or means what he says.
Later in a workshop with professional actors at the Globe Theater in Stratford (you can see Fiona Shaw in the front row), the actors take over, and that’s interesting, too, because their interpretation is so much earthier, funnier and more physical than the British ones.
And finally, you can watch Uncle Vanya take shape by flipping to The Wood Demon, an early version of the play. Here Astrov’s character ends up with the girl and the play goes on much longer after Vanya’s suicide, but large chunks of the dialogue are exactly the same as in the final play.
This set gives you deep, varied insight into specific plays, but it also allows you to look across Chekhov’s entire body of work and see what’s common to all his plays. Much of it comes, not surprisingly, from his life. The son of a freed serf, educated as a doctor, but pulled back at various times in his life to save his family from economic disaster, Chekov’s biography contains all the threads that run through his plays. Every play has a long speech on the value of work, the boredom of aristocratic doing nothing. Every play has a doctor. Many of the works contain extended, prescient speeches on the value of healthy environment.
The additional materials are significantly more interesting than usual on this set, including a set of radio plays with Ralph Fiennes, Ian McKellan, and other actors, a series of short stories read by Ewan MacGregor (Chekhov is widely considered the father of the modern short story), and a theatrical adaption of one of those short stories, “An Artist’s Story”, starring Patrick Stewart.
Chekhov died of tuberculosis at age 44, soon after his last play, The Cherry Orchard, was mounted in Moscow in 1904. His work necessarily captures a lost era in Russia, where aristocrats still idled on country estates, and endless talk unfolded in claustrophobic drawing rooms over gallons of tea and vodka.
Yet it also contains the seeds of change, the emergence of unruly, successful peasant characters (Lopatkhin in “Cherry Orchard”), gentlewoman forced to work (in “The Three Sisters”), and a recognition that work trumps idleness. You get the sense, watching these plays, that something has to change…and, of course, by 1914, something did change. Chekhov could not, perhaps, have imagined exactly how the revolution would unfold, but he would not have been surprised at all to see it happen.