What might Chekhov have made of modern Russia's slide into authoritarianism?by Lesley Chamberlain / March 28, 2008 / Leave a comment
The usual charge laid against English productions of Chekhov is that they are sentimental. As with so many aspects of our understanding of Russia, the real problem is slightly different. Give or take a samovar or a teapot, Russia’s greatest dramatist (who died in 1904) has earned a natural place on the English stage. In his Anglicised form, he’s upper class. The struggling country estate, the charm of a life surrounded by ancient retainers and, above all, the sense that it wouldn’t be good form to express one’s secret woes belong to a refined ethos from which a more general definition of Englishness has trickled down over the last century. It’s gone to ground in vulgar contemporary Britain, but it’s out there somewhere, part of our emotional heritage. It is from this Anglo-Russian coincidence that the danger of sentimentality, but also the possibility of sentiment, arise when Chekhov’s plays are put on the English stage. Two productions are currently touring the country: Peter Hall’s Uncle Vanya, for the English Touring Company, and an adaptation of Three Sisters—Three Sisters on Hope Street—which in late January kicked off Liverpool’s year as European cultural capital.
The real Chekhov is an unsurpassed animator of suppressed emotions—for which read, in part, the English stiff upper lip. We love him in this country without realising what an unsparing writer he was—how impatient of social mores—or how deeply his disillusion ran. One of his best critics from the early 20th century, Lev Shestov, called Chekhov “the singer of despair” who “lies in wait to derail every human hope.” Chekhov’s early work was straightforwardly humorous, and then something happened. In the progressive Russia of his day, he went deeply against the optimistic, social democratic grain.
Peter Hall’s Uncle Vanya, which recently left on an eight-week sweep of the country after a grand premiere at London’s New Rose theatre, sets new standards for revealing the constrained heart of the matter. Hall’s Chekhov is luminous and human—and his production is all the better for being neither particularly Russian nor English.
The plot of Vanya is simple. An elderly professor and his young wife, Yelena, return to settle at their country estate—which has for years been looked after by “uncle Vanya,” the professor’s brother-in-law by his first marriage—upsetting the lives of everyone in the house. Give or take the legal complications of who owns the estate (it in fact belongs…