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Lucky Stryk

Radio Times 20-26th October 1984

Actor Michael Pennington has had a long-standing fascination with the life and work of Chekhov, which will be explored in a film on this week’s Omnibus. He talks to Michael Billington.

Strange things happen on trains. Ten years ago actor Michael Pennington was on the trans-Siberian Express from Vladivostok to Moscow, after finishing an RSC tour of Japan. During the journey he fell into conversation with an American poet, professor and Zen expert, Lucien Stryk.

Noticing that Pennington was reading a biography of Chekhov, Stryk suggested that the actor do a one-man show based on the great Russian dramatist.

Pennington initially pooh-poohed the idea but, after much chivvying from his chum, finally unveiled his solo Chekhov show at the National Theatre this July. Out of that experience, and the crucial train encounter, stems Keith Cheetham’s impressionist ‘Omnibus’ film, ‘Pennington’s Chekhov’.

Pennington had admired Chekhov’s plays since his Cambridge university days. But he admits that without his strangers-on-a-train meeting he would never have got his show together. “Lucien’s suggestion had the value of surprise. It was he who told me that Chekhov had, in 1890, made the trans- Siberian journey in the opposite direction – from Moscow to Sakhalin – to report in the terrible conditions in the penal colony there.

“On the other hand, Lucien had also written a poem called ‘Chekhov in Nice’, about how the writer used to go to the South of France and gamble voraciously, according to a supposedly foolproof system. I learned about Chekhov the sociological missionary, and Chekhov the decadent pleasure-lover, and all this dented my image of him as a white-suited figure in a garden.”

Stryk sowed the seed; but it took time to germinate. In 1977 Pennington published his own book about the trans-Siberian journey. Five years later he played Chekhov in a Granada documentary. He then started to delve urgently into the mound of letters, short stories (over 500 in all) and Chekhov biographies, to come up with a stage show that would give an idea of what it was like to spend an evening in the great man’s company.

“I didn’t,” says Pennington, “want to do one of those boring biographical one-man shows on the lines of ‘then next year I painted the Sistine Chapel’. I simply wanted to bring Chekhov to life, and evoke his presence in a way that made you feel you could interrupt. I suppose his genius lay in his ability to see the universal in the particular. He wrote about the fact that people play cards, choke on their cabbage soup, drink too much vodka, have headaches, and are always in a state of emotional turmoil. In one of his stories he says, ‘people have dinner. That’s all they do. They have dinner and during this time their happiness is established or their lives are falling apart.’ Chekhov saw the drama of the ordinary.”

Michael Pennington denies any mystical identification with Chekhov, and underplays his supposed obsession with things Russian (last year he played Raskolnikov in Lyubimov’s shattering stage production of ‘Crime and Punishment’, and was a piebald gelding in the National’s version of a Tolstoy short story ‘Strider’). Yet he talks about the pleasantly large postbag he received after doing his Chekhov show – bigger even than when he played Hamlet – and says that on good nights in the theatre he had an uncanny sense of Chekhov’s presence.

“On the very last night an odd thing happened, when he’s describing his own death and the figure of the black monk who comes to haunt him. He says: ‘A light wind blew in from the sea, sending my papers to the floor.’ At that precise moment in the Cottesloe – which is a hermetically sealed theatre – a breeze blew in from somewhere and scattered the papers on my desk. I felt maybe one had for in touch with something numinous, which is lovely. Anyway, it’s a good story to dine out on.”

But, although Pennington claims there is an element of serendipity and chance about his involvement with Chekhov, he falls back on a lone of Olga’s in ‘Three Sisters’ to make his point (‘Life never turns out the way you expect. I didn’t mean to be a teacher but I am a teacher’). And the ‘Omnibus’ film explores the undoubted kinship between actor and writer.

Lucien Stryk has come over from the States to reconstruct the train encounter. Extracts from Pennington’s book are juxtaposed with Chekhov’s account of his own trans-Siberian journey in an unsprung carriage. And sequences from the stage show confirm Pennington’s ability, in his pince-nez, linen jacket and striped trousers, to get right inside the character’s skin.

Seeking to escape Slav typecasting, Pennington has recently turned down the chance to appear in Lyubimov’s stage production of Dostoevsky’s ‘The Possessed’. “I think if I do another Russian tragedy,” he says, “I and everyone else will go barmy – I want to find myself a modern comedy in trousers!”

Yet, in conversation, he has that blend of life-hunger and introspection that marks out Russian characters; he passionately argues that it’s sentimental to worship 19th-century Russian writers without visiting the Soviet Union, and he talks animatedly about the prospect of a second and third Chekhov show using new material. “I’d like to think he had a character audiences would keep coming back to for years and, in my wilder fantasies, I imagine a Chekhov day or even a weekend.”

So Pennington’s Chekhov may be with us for some time yet? “I’m afraid so,” he says with a huge gusty laugh that might have come from the mouth of a Russian peasant in one of Chekhov’s own stories.

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