The Olivier is now housing the extremely successful run of Chekhov’s first three plays, which played at Chichester last autumn. Comprising Platonov, Ivanov and The Seagull, and using the same company of actors, they can be viewed all in one day or on separate occasions. I opted for the latter.
The first play in the trilogy is Platonov, which is not only a tricky one to pronounce (it is accented on the second syllable) but is also a tricky one to categorise, probably due to the fact that Chekhov is thought to have written it whilst still a 20 year old medical student. Luckily its original length of 7hrs has been reduced to a much more manageable 2hrs 40mins and David Hare’s new translation brings the play up there with the best of Chekhov’s work.
Platonov of the title, brilliantly brought to life by James McArdle (complete with his natural Scottish accent), is a feckless schoolmaster, undoubtedly in love with his long suffering wife, Sasha but unable to resist the attentions of the women with whom he comes in contact. Dissolute he may be, but, thanks to McArdle’s bravura performance, Platonov’s charms are obvious. On paper, this immoral, self-absorbed character should be completely charmless, but in this superb production we all succumb to his magnetism.
One of the many women eating out of the palm of his hand is Anna Petrovna (the excellent Nina Sosanya) a widow living on the large estate where everyone congregates. As with much of Chekhov, money, or lack of it, dominates Anna’s existence, as does her infatuation with Platonov. Her first problem means she needs the help of the local capitalists, whilst her love for the immoral school teacher, whilst not exactly unrequited, is mainly based on passion.
It often seems that Chekhov hasn’t got much time for the characters he invents and no more so than here. The only truly good person is Sasha (Jade Williams) who, unlike everyone else, actually listens to what is being said and doesn’t have a selfish bone in her body.
Platonov is a mish mash of farce, drama, comedy and tragedy but here, thanks to David Hare’s interpretation, Jonathan Kent’s tight direction and the entire cast’s skill, it comes together as pure joy.
Ivanov at The Olivier
As with the previous play, the stage for Ivanov is set on a country estate, wonderfully realised by Set Designer Tom Pye. Nina Sosanya plays yet another Anna Petrovna but this time her character has tuberculosis and is consequently unlikely to see old age. One-sided relationships abound once again, for, whilst Anna adores her egotistical husband, Ivanov (Geoffrey Streatfield), he is unable to reciprocate, preferring instead the charms of Olivia Vinall’s Sasha.
With Ivanov we have yet another tortured soul, but, unlike, Platonov, he is totally without humour. The inhabitants of this play fall into two categories, drunken bores and angst ridden seekers of goodness knows what. Actually, I will revise that, as a clutch of grotesques sporadically appear, who because of their lack of emotional integrity leave the audience completely uninterested in their fate. The exception to all this is Anna Petrovna, the “good” person in Chekhov’s second play.
Whilst there are amusing moments, mostly provided by Sasha’s parents Pavel Lebedev (Jonathan Coy) and his very comical greedy wife, Zinaida (Debra Gillett), the title character lacks the attraction and verve of Platonov, languishing as he does in frequent bouts of self-hate. Whilst the latter’s charm redeems his bad behaviour somewhat, Ivanov’s self-absorbtion and self-pity doesn’t instill much sympathy, even though one realizes he is driven by shame.
I am yet to see Jonathan Kent’s take on The Seagull, although I do know the play. Based on what I know and what I’ve seen at The Olivier so far, I realise that the common denominator with these three plays appears to be the irresponsible landowner who fails in his task of keeping the estate together, the rise of the middle classes, the appearance of a doctor and/or teacher and the idealistic youth put down by the unimaginative old skeptics.
Oh, yes, and I mustn't forget the inevitable gunshot! Platonov, Ivanov and The Seagull, whilst similar in theme, can be categorized as farce, melodrama and finally, stark realism. So far, I much prefer his first foray into farce but will have to wait until October before I can judge the latest take on his realistic third play.