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Gate, Dublin, 1990

The Irish Times, 14th May 1990, Gerry Colgan

Something very special happened at the Gate Theatre last night. The stage was a large room with most of the furniture swathed in dust covers, and a quantity of luggage stacked on the floor. A bearded man sat quietly in the background, obviously waiting to embark on a journey; perhaps a final one.

He was Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, a man for whom medicine was his wife and literature his mistress. It is often said that talent is the best disguise in the world, and that behind genius often rages much that is egotistical and ugly – but here the man matched the image one takes instinctively from his plays and stories. He was humorous and melancholy, painfully sensitive and yet philosophical, with a view of life that today, and forever, enriches our world.

As he spoke to us, we had the clearest view of the gentle spirit that pervades his immortal plays. He could say half-seriously that his ideal life would be to be altogether idle and love a fat girl, but in his real world could feel the pain in the flogging of a Siberian prisoner or in the cruel death of a wood pigeon. He saw happiness as a supernatural emotion, not man’s natural condition, and all around him, in people and nature, a beauty barely apprehended before it took permanent flight. All of this, and much more, he bequeathed to us.

For this insight and experience, we are indebted to Michael Pennington, now playing the army commander in the Gate’s magical version of ‘Three Sisters’ quite brilliantly, and here showing a wonderful talent for recreation of its author. He put together the script, a pot-pourri of conversation, anecdote, stories and correspondence, with balance and inspiration, and paints his portrait truly. As an actor, he is again superb, achieving from the start that shift of identity that carries the audience with it into a world beyond the theatre in which they sit.

It is a pity that only one performance of this remarkable work has been offered, no doubt for unavoidable reasons. For those of us fortunate enough to see it, it was an experience to savour, a substantial bonus to the Gate’s main offering.

Evening Press, Dublin, 26th July 1990

On one of the warmest nights of the year, Michael Pennington, as Anton Chekhov, attracted a very large attendance to the airless Gate Theatre for last night’s opening of his one-man show about Russia’s famous playwright in whose ‘Three Sisters’ he appeared recently in the same theatre.

Inspired by a journey across Siberia, similar to one undertaken by Chekhov himself about 100 years ago. Pennington’s portrayal is more about Chekhov the sensitive human being than about Chekhov the sardonic observer of his fellow countrymen.

This Chekhov is a gay, light-hearted man who enjoyed life, although suffering badly from tuberculosis, a man who is full of love and compassion. Indeed, his character is greatly at odds with the apparent sadness and pessimism of his famous plays.

And revealingly, Pennington also brings out the serious social thinking and criticism that is not overt in these plays. The visit to the penal colony of Sakhalin Island is masterfully done and Pennington chillingly exposes Chekhov’s shock at the inhumanity of the system and its conditions.

Some people may be disappointed that there is little of the writer and his writings which he himself tended to be somewhat dismissive and deprecatory. But the show brings out the man behind the writings and his great love and understanding of his fellow man – especially at his weakest.

It is a lovingly sensitive performance and is well worth a visit to witness a master craftsman portraying a master storyteller. And remember it finishes on Saturday.

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