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Cottesloe 1984

The Guardian 6th July 1984, Michael Billington

Michael Pennington, in his one-man show at the Cottesloe, doesn’t seek to interpret Chekhov: he simply presents him. In his pince-nez, crumpled linen jacket and striped trousers, he glides around the stage in a deathly saunter or sits with legs primly joined reminiscing, telling us stories or reflecting upon life in a voice full of grave music. It is not a histrionic show; but it is a totally compelling one in which we seem to be spending a couple of hours in Chekhov’s company before he dies.

What the show reminds us of is Chekhov’s peculiarly Russian genius for relating the minute and specific to the large and universal. When he goes to the penal colony at Sakhalin Island he is struck by the way the wick of a candle is crusted with soot and the fact that a man who has killed his wife with a hammer keeps her portrait in his cell: at the same time, his soul is shaken by the beating of a prisoner and he reflects that “God’s world is good. Only one thing in it is bad: ourselves.” He combines the concrete and cosmic and invests every human encounter with significance: in one very moving passage he recalls a brief, boyhood glimpse, after a dust-stained journey, of a beautiful Armenian girl who transfixed him and left him with a “painful, pleasant sadness, vague and hazy as a dream.”

Raiding the letters and the short stories, Pennington gives us an impressionistic portrait of Chekhov in all his whimsical contradictoriness. He rejoices in travel (“I’d like to go to Chicago and India and Constantinople”) and finds in France that even the chambermaid smiles like a stage-duchess; yet, like the painter Levitan, he has a fierce nostalgia for his homeland. He finds consolation for melancholia in work; but, at the same time, recalls the doctoring drudgery of being called out to cholera cases before dawn and of being responsible for 25 villages, four factories and a monastery.

Mr Pennington doesn’t sanctify Chekhov: he puts him before us as a solitary, human, all-seeing figure who understands that one should write about simple things and that the drama of life is that people have dinner and that their lives are happy or falling apart.

Neither the theatre nor the relationship with Olga get much of a look-in in this delicate mosaic. Instead Mr Pennington, emerging from a dust-sheeted room like a wraith and coughing up blood apologetically, reminds us of Chekhov’s delight in fishing, cherries, peasants, friends and bizarre circumstance as the shadows close in. It is a beautifully modulated piece of acting, restrained and soft-spoken, in which the sickly, stiff-jointed Chekhov edges slowly towards death and yet retains to the last an unconquerable reverence for life. But perhaps the highest compliment one can pay the show is that it makes one focus on the song rather than the singer, the subject more than the actor.

The Times, 6th July 1984, Anthony Masters

Alone in the study of his villa, Anton Pavlovich sleeplessly awaits the “disgusting punishment” of death, which overtook him 80 years ago this month. Most of the furniture, like Mme. Ranevsky’s, is sheeted as if in shrouds; and packed trunks sit ready, as though for imminent departure. He speaks of his travels, of his terrible summer observing the penal island of Sakhalin, of his pleasure in fishing and horticulture, of his plays – which Tolstoy, he wryly notes, thought “even worse than Shakespeare’s”.

Michael Pennington himself compiled this one-man entertainment, subtle, seemingly insubstantial and strangely elusive in flavour. It makes a very oblique companion piece to the National Theatre’s forthcoming production of Chekhov’s first full-length play, ‘Wild Honey’ (otherwise known as ‘Platonov’).

The flow of his conversation is loosely biographical and it ends with the famous glass of champagne which immediately preceded his death, but there is no perceptible structure. Yet, drawing doubtless on Mr Pennington’s long study of Russia as well as her greatest playwright, it has a haunting quality.

Chekhov’s vivid perception, expressed with perfect simplicity, of sensation from the sight of a peasant woman kneading bread in sunlight to disagreeable feelings on reading one’s own work (like drinking cabbage soup that a cockroach has swum in), gives the actor a text as exquisitely written as Max Adrian’s one-man Shaw or Roy Dotrice’s John Aubrey. Pennington claims that every word is Chekhov’s own, though I thought the story about Chekhov’s father selling oil in which a rat had been drowned came from a brother’s account.

He resists the temptation of the obvious, and knowing references are discreet. Once there is a glimpse of Braz’s portrait which depicted him “like a Frenchman” (very like Proust, if only he knew) and eating, would you believe, cherries; later he shows us agronomic maps like Astrov’s in ‘Uncle Vanya’.

It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied. Oscar Wilde, using those words of a cigarette, added: “What more can one want?”, but we do want more: perhaps more about his youth, about his wife, about the theatre.

Sunday Express, 8th July 1984, Clive Hirschhorn

At the Cottesloe, Michael Pennington is giving a serene performance as ‘Anton Chekhov in a one-man show of his own devising. Set in the great man’s study, it is a moving voyage around the playwright’s thoughts and beliefs (every word in the show has been culled from Chekhov’s writings).

The study is a gloomy room whose shrouded furniture betokens its owner’s imminent death from consumption at the age of 44. As an unseen clock ticks ominously away, Pennington, in pince-nez, crumpled suit, black hat and walking stick vividly conveys his subject’s zest for life in a series of unrelated vignettes.

Some of them are autobiographical, some relate to his experience as a doctor, some deal directly with the art of writing. Indeed, if the evening has a fault it is that, at times, the material tends to splinter into so many fragments leaving the viewer slightly frustrated at not being provided with some of the more mundane details of Chekhov’s everyday existence and relationships – especially with his wife.

By the end of the evening, though, one is left in no doubt that the compassion Chekhov ladled so generously into his work, was equally apparent in his life. Bravo Pennington!

Sunday Telegraph, 8th July 1984

If we must have one-man shows, then none could be more satisfying than Michael Pennington’s ‘Anton Chekhov’ (Cottesloe), put together by him and Irina Brown entirely from what Chekhov himself either wrote or said.

Whether evoking nights of insomnia as he awaited his death from tuberculosis, an adolescent infatuation with a beautiful Armenian girl, or a hideous flogging in the penal colony of Sakhalin, here is Chekhov in all his humour, humanity and humility, responding to the joy of human existence while constantly striving to reduce its omnipresent misery. It is fortunate that so remarkable a writer and man has attracted so remarkable an actor.

The Observer, 8th July 1984

No space left to do more than recommend warmly an evening of gentle, reflective pleasure at the Cottesloe, where Michael Pennington has devised a solo entertainment from the writings of Chekhov in which he appears as, and has simply called, ‘Anton Chekhov’. The essence of Chekhov is the deceptive but inexhaustible simplicity of life on earth and Pennington articulates this with a keen wonder and sharp edge that never pall.

New Statesman, 13th July 1984, Naseem Khan

Clarity is the supreme virtue of Michael Pennington’s engaging recreation of ‘Anton Chekhov’. The acting area, beautifully lit by Paul McLeish, is dreamlike: his desk, dustsheet-covered chairs, open trunks and the steady tick of an old-fashioned clock. Moving around it Pennington weaves together reminiscences, diaries and snatches of stories, looking back on a life he sees with some pride as “an accomplished composition” on the brink of his death.

It is an evening that increasingly grips the attention. Pennington brings out a quiet visionary quality embodied in sharp almost painterly images – a woman kneading sunlight into her dough, the poignant beauty of a girl never seen again, the burning stubble when he escapes death in Siberia.

Where to Go 19th-25th July 1985

At the National Theatre Michael Pennington has devised a one-man show for himself based on that enigmatic Russian playwright, Anton Chekhov. He presumably also staged the piece himself (it lasts less than two hours with an interval), and wrote the script, for the only credit other than the actor’s is for Irina Brown, with design by Alison Chitty. ‘Anton Chekhov’ makes a good curtain raiser for the upcoming production of the re-titled ‘Wild Honey’, a new version by Michael Frayn of Chekhov’s early unfinished play sometimes known to us as ‘Platonov’. This curious comedy can be seen now in the Lyttelton Theatre, while Pennington’s performance is next due at the Cottesloe on July 27th for a week.

The stage is a plain square of scrubbed boards, on which are scattered various pieces of furniture, furled in dust-covers. The tick of a clock adds a slow, somnolent air as the light glows painfully into a pre-dawn greyness. In a chair at the back of the plain-planked room the writer stirs, turns and then slowly gets up, informing us, half to himself, half directly to the audience, that it is the middle of the night, he can’t sleep, and he wishes death wouldn’t dally so long. The time stays approximately there, trapped in darkness, as the middle-aged man reminisces and rambles at length about his life and times.

There’s little story but lots of anecdote and description, so that the whole resembles a pointilliste painter’s work, built up painstakingly with small dabs of detail and colour. Pennington has taken a great deal of time to research his subject, which is obviously a much loved one, but inevitably it is at times too lingering and too self-indulgent and needs the excisions which might have come from an independent director. All too often I found my attention wandering and an attendant drowsy feeling couldn’t have been all due to the hot theatre.

Nevertheless there are some jewels here – his way of working, his retelling of the tale of a peasant marriage, his visit to the penal colony in Siberia, his scorn of some other writers, his gentle homilies. Most of the piece is about his writing, but there is actually not much reference to his plays (even though he wrote few compared to hundreds of short stories, they are after all what made his fame) nor to his domestic life and his wife, Olga Knipper the actress from the Moscow Arts Theatre, who played in her husband’s works until 1943. The devotee of Chekhov’s works will find a great deal to enjoy and savour here, and the gentle rose-bloom of Pennington’s fine voice lulls one easily into the prevailing mood of nostalgia.

The Lady, 19h July 1984

On the next night it was a relief to find Michael Pennington’s one-man portrait of ‘Anton Chekhov’ in the Cottesloe auditorium of the National. This is beautifully made – everything we hear was ‘said, or written, in public or private’ by Chekhov – and doubtless it is ungrateful to wonder, as we look at the shrouded stage in the ebb of the dramatists life, why we get little about his plays (certainly Astrov and his maps do arrive). But Chekhov had many gifts; and Mr Pennington’s grand performance keeps us alert, the picture of a man infinitely human and civilized. One of his subtle short stories is included, and there is also his distressed reaction to the flogging of a convict in the penal colony of Sakhalin. This is a night of quiet but unforgettable emotion.

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