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The train to Chekhov

The Guardian 22nd June 1984, Michael Billington

“I don’t really approve of one-man shows. In a way there is something very self-satisfied about them. Someone the other day was describing them as ‘the chamber-music of the business.’ If they mean by that an unaccompanied sonata for the ego, that’s about right.”

So says Michael Pennington who brings his own one-man show, Anton Chekhov, into the Cottesloe on July 5th (according to some sources, the 80th anniversary of Chekhov’s death). He has already been touring for some time, with the help of the NT’s Education Department, around schools, colleges and small-scale venues.

And he quickly qualifies his attack on solo shows by saying there are some things you can only deal with in that form. “Like how a writer writes and how such a solitary figure as Chekhov works. At one stage I toyed with doing a three-hander between Chekhov, Gorky and Tolstoy because they all knew one another and had a wonderfully bitchy, schizoid attitude towards each other. But in the end I couldn’t see any way of describing what Chekhov was like except by being on my own.”

Pennington (still playing a horse in Strider and a plotting malcontent in Venice Preserv’d) has an obvious affinity with things Russian. But the idea of doing a Chekhov evening was not primarily his. “I was on the trans-Siberian Express about ten years ago coming back from an RSC tour of Japan and I was travelling with an American poet. I’d taken a Chekhov biography along to read and this guy – now a close friend – asked me if I realised Chekhov had made the journey in the other direction from Moscow to Sakhalin in unsprung carriages on terrible roads while doing a survey of the Penal Colony. I didn’t know that because I had a received image of Chekhov as a figure in a summer garden.

“Later in the journey, my friend suggested I do a one-man show about Chekhov. I said it would be an impertinence, an insult, a stupid idea. We parted and every six months I’d get a line asking how the Chekhov show was coming along. Two years ago my friend turned up in England and I put the script into his hands.”

Pennington has plundered the stories (600 in all), the letters and the endless material about Chekhov in order to give us an idea of what an evening in the great man’s company would have been like. He now has five or six different shows in his head that he can vary according to the venue.

If he’s playing a drama school, he uses a lot of theatrical anecdotes. Going round colleges, he quotes Chekhov on the lousy lot of the provincial teacher. For the National he had the idea of Chekhov in exile in the midst of a world-wide lecture tour, being hauled in by the GB-USSR association to give a talk and astonished to find an early work of ‘Wild Honey’ was being revived. He discarded that as too self-conscious and says he has come up with something much more theatrical.

Chekhov (rather like Kipling) once said that he suffered from ‘autobiographophobia.’ Pennington hopes, however, to give us some idea of both the inspirational and contradictory qualities of the man. “Tolstoy said he’s like a girl – he even walks like a girl. And there are wonderful loopy descriptions of how he used to sit for hours trying to snare a sunbeam in his hat and of how he would catch a mouse, throw it into the Tartar cemetery at the foot of his garden and of how the mouse would follow him back.

“Yet he had a scatological sense of humour: wherever he went the first thing he did was write home to his sister about what the water-closets were like. And there was a cranky, oddball quality to him. He hated having visitors but he couldn’t do without them. He could also be short-tempered, petulant and strangely chauvinistic about women. So I’m not showing how loveable he was. Simply saying that people respond to him in terms of how he lived his life. He gets under your guard and I greatly enjoy having him around.”

Pennington’s own fascination with Chekhov goes back to Cambridge student days in the early 60s. He remembers fierce arguments about the relative merits of Chekhov and Ibsen, Stanislavski and Brecht. He also recalls he and his friends going to see the famous Olivier production of ‘Uncle Vanya’ and arrogantly deciding it was a travesty because at the end Olivier spotlit Sonya for her devastating final speech.

Yet the only Chekhov productions he has been in are a Richard Cottrell ‘Three Sisters’ in the early 70s and ‘The Seagull’ on radio. He has, however, done Gogol’s ‘Diary of a Madman’, Bulgakov’s ‘White Guard’ on stage and television, and famously Lyubimov’s production of ‘Crime and Punishment’ at the Lyric Hammersmith. The mere mention of this leads this reflective actor into something like anger (well justified in my view) with the British theatre’s xenophobia.

“Lyubimov’s whole showing in Britain has been six weeks in Hammersmith and a TV documentary about his work. We couldn’t get anyone to televise the production. We couldn’t get a West End management to transfer it. Neither the National nor the RSC offered him a platform. Having welcomed Lyubimov with open arms to the free world and said how terrible it must have been in Moscow for his work to be censored and often unseen by the wide public, in our discreet English way we’ve done exactly the same thing to him.

“Yuri was very hurt and bewildered by it. What was odd about ‘Crime and Punishment’ was that it belied the notion that you have to work for 10 years to produce an ensemble because we did it in six weeks. A West End manager said that it was causing a big stir down in Hammersmith but was not really being talked about up west. And although we discussed reviving it this spring, by then most of the actors had got a telly or something. It was very sad.”

For me ‘Crime and Punishment’ ranks with brook’s ‘Dream’, Hall’s ‘Wars of the Roses’ and, yes, Olivier’s ‘Uncle Vanya’ as one of the supreme theatrical achievements in my lifetime; and I share Pennington’s scorn for the twittish local theatre director who wrote to Time Out saying he could have done just as well given those facilities. But the good news is that Lyubimov hopes to set up a production of ‘The Possessed’ that will play at the Paris Odeon in February, 1985, move to Milan and then come to the Almeida in Islington; and there is already talk of Pennington himself, Simon Callow, Juliet Stevenson and Harriet Walter being involved.

Appalled by out theatre’s xenophobia, Pennington also took steps to persuade Ariane Mnouchkine, the sensation of Paris, to do a Shakespeare production in England. “I’d seen her ‘Twelfth Night’ in Paris and loved the virtuosity of her company and her application of Kabuki-style techniques to Shakespeare. I thought it would be wonderful if British-trained Shakespearean actors could submit themselves to her style of working. But she said she was too busy.

“The real problem is that the few people who are seriously involved in trying to get foreign directors over here, like Peter James, David Gothar and Pierre Audi, usually don’t have the money or resources needed. Otherwise I think professionally we are rather inward looking and directors are not eager to welcome highly gifted foreign colleagues. With Lyubimov, this interpreted itself as a wish that he would go away and not embarrass everybody with these productions done, in truth, on little money.”

Pennington is a genuine internationalist in a parochial profession. But he denies that he has any wish to direct, write or run a company: he would just like the actor’s voice to be heard more loudly in the theatre’s innermost counsels and for things like the RSC’s Associate Artists list to be turned into a source of consultation. His own palpable intelligence (he talks fascinatingly about his trips to the Soviet Union and says “the more decisive the views people have about the place, the more certain you can be they haven’t been there”) makes the case better than one or two recent, breast-beating credos. Meanwhile Pennington prepares to immerse himself in the character of his adored Chekhov, with just a hint of defiance, “Acting does fulfil me – because in the end that’s what I’m here for.”

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