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Interviewing Anton Chekhov:

Michael Pennington on his one-man show ‘Anton Chekhov

Where did ‘Anton Chekhov’ come from, what inspired you to write it?

In 1975, I was coming back from a tour of Japan on the Trans-Siberian just as a travel experience, really. I had a slightly more than average interest in Chekhov as a student and then beyond that in my life and when I was half way, I met an American poet called Lucien Stryk, a professor of creative writing at Chicago University. He was a poet and a teacher. I had brought a biography of Chekhov to read – it seemed appropriate – he saw me reading it and pointed out that Chekhov had done a journey exactly the same as ours across Siberia, except that he had done it in a horse and carriage in terrible conditions, in 1890 and it had taken him three months. The reason he had done the journey was to visit a penal colony in the east of Russia and do a survey of the conditions there, in the prison. And indeed, he did do this survey, working every day from four in the morning until midnight, when he returned to Moscow he produced a report and it lead to some improvements. This wasn’t the kind of behaviour I associated with Chekhov, I thought if he had a social conscience he would probably exercise it from his armchair. There were a lot of Russian artists at the time who made a great fuss of their progressive ideas but Chekhov wasn’t like that, he was very humble, discreet about it all and never drew attention to this side of his work. Although the truth is he was a practising doctor. He would say this was his main job; he treated peasants far and wide for no money of course; he was probably the first NHS GP except that there wasn’t a NHS, he did it off his own initiative. So, the trip to Siberia was an extension of that side of his personality. And I realised I didn’t know him at all, I just knew his four great plays, with people sitting in the garden and talking about things. As I read on through the biography I realised that everything Lucien had told me was completely true. So apart from the pleasant paradox of being in the reverse of his footsteps, I had discovered that this writer I thought I knew everything about was actually a person I could never have imagined him to be. A little later in the journey, Lucien suggested I should do a solo show on Chekhov, that it would be interesting and of course I replied by saying that it would be too difficult, how could I possibly tackle such a huge figure, especially one that everybody feels they know, well everybody who is interested. We got to Moscow and parted and forgot about it. But once a year we would speak and he would say have you started on your one-man show and I would say, you don’t understand it’s much more difficult than it seems. Secretly I was beginning to fiddle around with things, but I never told him that. Then eight years later when he rang, I had it ready and told him I would be doing it at the National.

And did he come and see it?

Yes, he was based in America but he did come over and in fact we did an Omnibus documentary that reconstructed our journey across Siberia. We dramatised it of course. The programme was about exactly the question you have just asked me: how I came to create ‘Anton Chekhov’. What was interesting about doing it was that I didn’t think about it all the time, but in bits, and I had lots of ideas about how to approach it: I thought of a play in which Chekhov would appear, but that didn’t work out too well. I remember one day I was working on it and giving up on it really, when the phone rang and it was Granada television saying they were doing a play about Chekhov, his wife and his sister – it was a strange sort of coincidence really. Out of that I developed confidence about playing the character, I brought that back into my own work.

And that’s where it finally came from?

Yeah, I mean given that he is a certain kind of character, I had to decide how I would play him, how would he feel about doing a solo show, how would he do it, how would he present himself?

So, how did you decide to approach it?

There were various red herrings but eventually I discovered that the best way to do it would be to see him late in life on an imaginary sleepless night in his own home, reminiscing and reflecting on his own life. But I also wanted to break that fairly standard convention so that he would be simultaneously in the Cottesloe Theatre in 1984 having to account for himself. The show itself moves in and out of these two time spheres, crossing and recrossing the fourth wall. His character is so interesting because he projects this humanity, a complete lack of conceit, a real sense of decency, some say he was very gregarious, he had a lot of friends; but others perceived him as cold and withdrawn, as writers often are, I suppose. I wanted to find a way of reflecting these sides of his character in his relationship to the audience. He would not like to stand on the platform and be exhibited; he used to say he had a disease called autobiographobia. So that’s not a very promising start. But he knows he has to do it, so the agenda is what he might like to talk about, like fishing, story writing and how you do it, doctoring, and only lastly the plays because he was never really comfortable in his role as a playwright.

But you use only words written or uttered by Chekhov, is that right?

Yes I do, but not in the context of the plays, they are taken out of stories and turned into first person narrative, as if they were him speaking. The most obvious example is in ‘Uncle Vanya’ when Astrov shows the maps of the district, which I do as if it were Chekhov trying to entertain the audience. And in the end Astrov says I can see from your face this doesn’t interest you at all, so in the play, I say I can see from your faces this doesn’t interest you at all. So it is full of those kind of devices, tricks you might say, and lots of stories too, a couple of his diaries, letters – he wrote two or three long letters every day of his life – also things he is reported to have said in memoirs. All these aspects are rewoven, to form in effect, a single long speech that goes on for and hour and a half. But all out of his words, because the only alternative is to make it all up and I didn’t want to do that.

Well I suppose that would be more you than Chekhov, it would create a distance that isn’t there in the way that you have done it.

It’s like Oscar Wilde, you use his words, why would you not? But the trick is to make it sound like him speaking and speaking in a considered way not a reconsidered way, just sort of reassociated. So, that’s the idea of it.

How long have you been doing it?

Since 1984, so twenty years.

When did you start writing it?

1975, but I wrote it in a very bitty way over that ten year period, and then when the National wanted me to do it in two months ahead of time, that really accelerated the process. I suddenly had to make decisions, get it learnt and ready in time. It’s very good for you, that kind of pressure. Then after that it became popular on the International Festival circuit, because Chekhov is popular everywhere and it was quite suitable, easy to tour, although it is actually a play, and that’s important, it has a set and needs technical attention, it has a central character; it’s not in any sense a recital, or a lectern job, it’s not as simple as that.

But the main thing to realise about my having been doing the play over a twenty-year period is that for ten of those years I didn’t touch it at all. I did it in 1984 until about 1986 and then hardly at all between then and the early nineties. I revived it in 1997 at The Old Vic, we were doing ‘The Seagull’, so it was a perfect opportunity to put some performances in; and I didn’t exactly rewrite it but I changed it quite a bit.

In what way?

I made it more fun, really. But also, previously I had very little about the plays in it, upon the basis that he wouldn’t want to talk about them. However, it is a bit perverse to do a solo show about Chekhov without mentioning the plays, so I found a device – which I’ll keep secret. There is a discussion about the plays, of a sort, in the new version. So he does now consider the thing that he is most famous for but that, of course, he was very dismissive about himself. He always said, “I’m no playwright, and I’m certainly not a tragic playwright, I wrote four comedies.” His attitude to his plays is very odd, interesting in itself.

Can you expand a bit more on that?

Well, he was talking of the way they were directed in those days, which was very solemn, and tragic perhaps, well he felt they were. Now the comic element is brought out much more thoroughly, as it should be.

When you toured ‘Anton Chekhov’, did audiences respond differently to it in different places in the world?

Probably not, it’s like when you tour Shakespeare, I suppose you’d think that the Chinese will respond differently to it than the Japanese, but the odd thing about it is that most audiences are the same, certainly when confronted by Shakespeare, or any universal figures. The same things appeal to everybody, it’s an indication of how alike we are.

And the plays are about humanity and being human aren’t they?

Absolutely, things that connect or separate us all. I went to Israel once and I added something that considered Chekhov’s attitude to the Jews. He lived in a very anti-Semitic time but in fact he wasn’t anti-Semitic himself, he had lots of Jewish friends and famously took up the cause of a Jewish army officer who was the victim of anti-Semitism and wrongly imprisoned. So what I mean to sat, is that I specifically chose things to include for an Israeli audience, but it wouldn’t really have mattered whether I had or not, it was his beliefs, his words and his heartbeat that people responded to. In Ireland, they respond tremendously to Chekhov as a Storyteller, they have a great oral tradition.

And do you find that it affects how you perform, what aspects you emphasise. For example, in Ireland did you perform the piece in a more of a storytelling way because it encouraged more of a response?

Again it’s like Shakespeare, to go to Japan and put travel masks on your face because they do in Tokyo is silly, you know you don’t need to do that kind of stuff, because essentially people are the same everywhere and Chekhov would agree that.

How do you rehearse it?

Lonely-ly. When I first began it I had not so much a director as an assistant, Irina Brown, but it was on the basis that it was up to me, she would say it might be better if you try … it was very mild direction. Also she was Russian so she could guide me to make sure that certain things were absolutely authentic. When I do it now I usually get a stage manager involved quite early, to save myself from being alone. I mean I don’t really need to rehearse it so much now, I run the lines, it’s just a matter of brushing it up, making a few changes, those things I can do on my own. But it used to be that I would have to call myself to rehearsal for ten thirty, set a lunch break at one o’clock, just like a normal rehearsal, because otherwise I wouldn’t do it. We only go to rehearsals on time because other people are involved, that’s the whole point of rehearsing – with others. It’s a discipline to do with other people, that obviously doesn’t apply when rehearsing ‘Anton Chekhov’.

Hard to see yourself as well, to have that reflective distance.

I owe a lot to Irina Brown. I should probably give her more credit than I have, we worked on the script at the same time, we worked out what would be best, and now I look at it and actually think, this is put together pretty well. But it is partly the fruit of the ten-year thinking and digestion period, and partly the fruit of those four intense weeks with Irina Brown, throwing things out and putting things in. It’s an old horse now but I mean people will respond to it as they would respond to him. I want people to feel like they have sort of spent an evening with him, on his own terms; I want them to feel they have some personal contract, as though they could ask him a question or two. It’s very intimate. This is all I’m doing. I’m not trying to repeat facts, I’m trying to create an impression of what it is like, what would his attitude be to you, the pitch of his voice, how would he talk, what would the state of his teeth be? It’s a kind of one-sided conversation at which you get up at the end and think “I have got to know someone better.”

What is Chekhov’s legacy?

He changed the theatre forever, not only in Russia but everywhere. Not on his own, others were working at the same time, Ibsen for one. But he inherited a legacy of melodramatic actors, plays and theatre: the hero and the villain shouting how they feel. Chekhov revealed human lives, he demonstrated that what matters is what happens inside people, they may just be having dinner but simultaneously their loves may be destroyed. It isn’t what they say but the subtext; it happens when they are doing something else. In fact nothing has to happen, the important thing is what is happening underneath, we don’t spend our lives declaring how we feel towards one another, we reflect it through what we do. Chekhov started that. And the simultaneity of Comedy and Tragedy in one moment.

That uniquely human aspect

Yes, it is all about being human. There is personality there of course but essentially it is about humanity. This is something we take for granted now. Our acting style embraces such things now but he was talking at the time of melodrama. Of course, he didn’t have so much confidence in his plays, he always hated the way they were done. Even when the Moscow Arts Theatre took them on, they were too solemn, too devised for him. They were so concerned about having real birds and real sounds and to him that was completely unnecessary. You wouldn’t stick a real nose on a portrait because it’s a work of art. It’s an interesting debate he started about what realism actually is. His plays are so carefully orchestrated like poetry, but they sound real when spoken. His plays are like poetry.

I never thought of poetry as part of realism but you’re right.

Yes it’s poetic in that it is an extract from life that requires the artificiality of the theatre but plays out a reality. The poetry is concealed really.

Well thank you very much for your time and offering such great insight into your work.

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