Home. Introduction. News. Career. One Man shows. Books. Reviews. Articles. Contact.

The Old Vic, 1997

Time Out, 27th August 1997, Patrick Marmion

Anton Chekhov once reflected: “People have dinner, that’s all they do, they have dinner; yet during this time their happiness is established or their lives are falling apart.” But although there is no sign of dinner in Michael Pennington’s deliciously low-key portrait of the Russian dramatist, his show has the flavour of a post-prandial oration documenting Chekhov’s life. Rustled up from quotes and correspondence this is a smorgasbord of sad but witty maunderings on the subjects of insomnia, travel, “a childhood without a childhood”, womanising, encounters with Tolstoy (who described him as “worse than Shakespeare”) and a harrowing visit to a Siberian prison camp. It is characterised by a loneliness bordering on misanthropy, but the final impression is of a man inspired by a powerful empathy for people and their suffering.

This has clearly been a labour of love for Pennington, who manages to look uncannily like his hero as he bumbles about the stage affecting unselfconsciously effete manners. He also adopts the air of a learned, somewhat aristocratic raconteur, sensitive and wryly solicitous. Only occasionally is this persona broken by a tubercular cough or angry eructation for which he immediately apologises, as any gentleman would. Nor is it easy to pull off a monologue in a theatre the size of The Old Vic, but Pennington’s use of silence is both fearless and moving. Played out among packed suitcases and furniture covered in drapes with recurrent references to a one-thousand-year-old monk in black, the whole is infused with, and driven by, a sense of loss and anticipation of the grave. Featuring few warts, it may be a doting portrait by a fan, but it remains a touching two hours.

The Observer, 24th August 1997, Jeremy Kingston

The revised version of Michael Pennington’s celebrated one-man show appears on a sorrowful day for the Peter Hall Company. Ed and David Mirvish, Canadian producers and owners of the Old Vic, have announced that the building is to be sold in December.

This is a sad curtailment of a project that Hall hoped might last five years, a revival of the repertory system he has always believed works best for actors, playing seven days a week. I have no figures for the season as a whole, but when I saw ‘Waiting for Godot’ two weeks ago the house was packed. Pennington manages to make a coded reference to Beckett’s play in the course of his performance, which is quite an achievement when the man he is portraying died two years before Beckett was born.

This biographical entertainment was first seen at the National Theatre in 1984, since when more details of Chekhov’s life have surfaced as the oil-slick of Soviet censorship fades away.

These revelations chiefly show the man’s fondness for women, fat or thin, Russian or foreign, and must have been suppressed because censors always believe that the only hero is a sexless hero. A daydream of settling in The Netherlands with a Dutch woman and a cow is particularly endearing.

Pennington walks into view from the darkness at the rear of the stage, supporting himself on a knobbly black cane, trimly bearded, pince-nez clipped to the bridge of his nose. Open trunks are scattered across the stage, and in the course of the evening he packs books and other small objects into them, as if about to set off to Yalta, where he lived the last years of his life, or Badenweiler, where he was to die. His memories roam around his harsh childhood, early years as doctor and hack writer, and the astonishing journey across Siberia in 1890.

Presenting the hallucinations in his story ‘The Black Monk’ as being the dying Chekhov’s own experience is effective, but so is Pennington’s manner throughout, his light voice caressing us with precise, vivid descriptions, so courteously spoken, and when pessimistic nonetheless crossed by shafts of comic observation.

He can be tart about the earnestness of Dostoevsky, passionately distressed when obliged to witness brutality and evidently an excellent teller of jokes. The mosaic Pennington assembles from the mass of Chekhov material is the portrait of a man for all seasons.

The Stage and Television Today, 28th August 1997, John Thaxter

Michael Pennington’s solo, a reflective portrayal of Chekhov on the brink of death, has been revised since London first saw it at the Cottesloe in 1984. In the interim, both actor and subject have somehow grown younger. With a neat beard, auburn quiff and pince-nez he now represents the perkier version of Russia’s most famous writer, more believably a 44-year-old, despite a bout of consumptive coughing and a champagne death scene at the final black-out.

Another change allows us an opportunity to opt for a five-minute discourse on one of the major plays. At the press night the chosen subject was ‘The Seagull’, prompting a quick account of the Petersburg fiasco – with little acknowledgement of Chekhov’s own humiliation. Unwisely, this sequence ends with a misleading joke suggesting Chekhov was about to pre-empt Beckett’s ‘Godot’. In fact at the time he was devising a play about passengers trapped on an ice-bound liner.

Drawn from the stories, letters and diaries, the performance gives us Chekhov’s restrained, ironic façade, broken by moments of compassionate despair on his visit to Siberia and an idyllic return via Hong King. A scene from ‘Vanya’ casts Astrov and his charts as straightforward autobiography. Of Chekhov’s turbulent sex life and his less than idyllic marriage there is almost nothing.

But seen as a counterpoint to Pennington’s tragicomic Trigorin – continuing in repertory – the evening is a sharp reminder of what London playgoers will lose if the Peter Hall ensemble is wound up with the sale of the Old Vic.

Return to Reviews