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ETT Tour 2003

Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds

Bury Free Press 14th March 2003 (Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, 11th March 2003)

In a supreme demonstration of the actor’s art, Michael Pennington held the rapt attention of his audience with the mastery of his one-man show in the character of the writer Anton Chekhov.

We spent two hours in the company of an entertaining companion; a man who thought of medicine as his ‘wife’ and literature as his mistress, someone with a restless intellectual curiosity who bore his learning lightly, a mischievous spirit with a contrary viewpoint on the simplest things in life.

Pennington researched and wrote the piece himself and entered into the spirit of the writer whose life encompassed much more than his playwriting.

Material from Chekhov's short stories and journals, and historical details about his life, were woven into a seamless web of words which seemed to spin as effortlessly and spontaneously as a real conversation.

At one point, Pennington offered the audience a choice as to which of his (Chekhov's) four most famous plays we would like him to tell us about. Several people called out for the ‘Three Sisters’, but unless he had planted stooges in the audience, he must have had monologues on all four prepared.

Chekhov’s illness, the consumptive cough that killed him, was effectively conveyed without being melodramatic. His urgent appeal to ‘take hold of what is left of your life and savour it’ summed up a man who, despite moments of self-doubt and even despair, tried to find the joy in life.

His experience in the Siberian penal colony, Sakhalin Island, seem to have traumatised Chekhov, confirming him in the idea that ‘God’s world is good; only one thing is bad – ourselves’. We heard a traumatic account of a punishment flogging and the ungracious reception Chekhov received when he returned to Moscow to report on what he had seen.

He retreated to live in the country, enjoying the peace and quiet of nature while working ceaselessly to improve health care for the rural community.

Pennington himself says his research has been ‘simply a way of making better guesses. In the theatre, anything that leads the audience to think, “yes, I think that’s possible” carries the weight of fact’.

This deeply atmospheric piece of biographical theatre certainly gave a convincing impression that it was an insight into the very real life of its subject.

The Stage and Television Today, 27th March 2003, Hugh Homas

Written and performed by Michael Pennington, this play focuses on the Russian storyteller and playwright towards the end of his days reminiscing about art, life and what a souses herring it was dealing with the likes of Stanislavsky.

Pennington, alone on the Theatre Royal stage for almost two hours, bears a striking resemblance to the writer whom Tolstoy called a “dear, beautiful man”.

Chekhov himself considered medicine his legal wife and writing his mistress. Both occupied Anton Pavlovich throughout the 44 years of his life. His many concerns are reflected in our contemporary preoccupations – the environment, the spread of disease and penal reform. Best known for his four late plays, Chekhov nonetheless seems to have been prouder of his 600 stories and a poem than “some plays”.

Pennington’s cool, confident command of the stage and his material means that we really do seem to be in the room with him, eavesdropping. It is a superb performance, one that allows long pauses without the slightest hint of awkwardness. Most importantly, it sends one back to Chekhov’s material with fresh insight and greater understanding – surely the best recommendation of all to share this evening with one of Britain’s most celebrated actors.

Oxford Playhouse

BBCi, 5th April 2003, Abigail Uden

The director, Stephen Unwin, was very apologetic.

Sudden illness has meant that the English Touring Theatre’s performances of ‘John Gabriel Borkman’ have had to be cancelled this week in Oxford.

Good job that cast member Michael Pennington has a one-man show up his sleeve, then …

His production of ‘Anton Chekhov’, we are told, comes out of a 15-year love affair with the writer and his work.

We see Pennington, as Chekhov, reminiscing about his life, his writing techniques and his relationship with the theatre.

At one point Pennington has the house lights brought up so he can talk to the audience directly, and give them the choice about which Chekhov play they would like to hear more about.

Everything in the performance was said or written by Chekhov himself, and what emerges is what extraordinary good company the writer must have been.

Made up to look uncannily like the portraits of the Russian, Pennington delivers his material beautifully.

During the evening he takes you with him along paths of beauty (a character is described as someone who “breathes happiness”), of humour (who could resist Chekhov’s obvious delight in extolling the virtues of idleness and the desire to “drink champagne and love a fat girl”?) and, of course, sadness.

Chekhov’s words are still intensely powerful.

For example, the part of the show where he describes going to observe conditions in a prison in Siberia is heartrending, yet it is spoken with obvious anger or outrage.

In another lyrical passage, Pennington shows Chekhov going to the core of the human condition. What is the point, he questions, in writing a story about a man travelling to the north pole in a submarine, when, in real life, “people have dinner – that’s what they do.”

Anton Chekhov, as a one-man show, is a little bit of an oddity to be sure.

Whether it is a fitting substitute for Ibsen, I don’t know, but it holds its own as an evening of wit and literary merit, with some wise homespun advice thrown in.

And thanks to this performance, when my relatives next come to stay I will call to mind these words of Chekhovian wisdom: “Be thankful that they are not the police.”

www.dailyinfo.co.uk, 1st April 2003, Ben O’Loughlin

Michael Pennington brings Chekhov back to life, for which we should thank him. We share two hours solely in the company of the Russian writer as, sensing death approaching, he reflects upon his experiences and his writing. After performing this one-man show for nearly 20 years Pennington has developed a certain polish but, more importantly, a polish effused with such sensitivity that we truly feel Chekhov’s humanity – his humour, his fascination with people’s everyday life, his compassion. Chekhov’s compatriot Gorky said that merely to think of Chekhov brings new energy into your life and reminds you that man is the axis of the world. Inspiring stuff indeed!

The performance has two elements entwined. First, we listen to Chekhov's recollections of his twin careers – medicine (his wife) and literature (his mistress). His reflections of his travels, on his writing process, and on the critical reception to his work are sufficiently interesting, but the spice comes when he bitches about his peers, mocking Dostoyevsky in particular. Into these reflections Pennington weaves a second element: Chekhov’s rambling unfolds into short stories, taking us away from the man and reminding us of the eternal sympathy of his work. Tales from peasant life and Siberian prisons are harrowing and capture as much of the meanness of humanity as anything more redeeming.

These stories inject some drama into what could easily have remained a series of travelogues and personal pontifications. Further, Pennington has clearly done his homework. Every word spoken is a word Chekhov himself spoke. Nor does he gloss over Chekhov’s quirks – his difficulty in dealing with fans, and his contempt for a number of guests who visited his house over the years.

Bizarrely, this review is based on an impromptu performance forced upon Pennington at the last minute after the Playhouse’s advertised play for the evening of April 1st was called off due to illness among the cast. The ticket-buying audience that weren’t mortally offended by this unexpected turn of events clearly felt by the end that staying had proved worthwhile, with Pennington getting a great reception.

Whether you see it in Oxford or later somewhere else, this play is a rare thing – a guaranteed good performance. You may also find yourself wandering to the bookshop afterwards.

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