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Adventures with Anton

Do you know how many times Chekhov mentioned cherries, crocodiles and cabbage soup? Michael Pennington does. But he would hate you to think he was obsessed...

Michael Pennington
Wednesday January 15, 2003
The Guardian

The story goes that Samuel Beckett once gave in to a serious-minded fan who had pestered him for years by inviting him to lunch, only to see the fan become tongue-tied and flee from the restaurant. Beckett's response was immediately to send him the manuscript of a new play no one else had yet seen.

I wonder about this exemplary gesture when I think about meeting Chekhov, an event to which I have devoted a deal of thought and some fictional engineering. Where Beckett knew the difference between celebrity-hunting and helpless respect, Chekhov was a man so generally uneasy with fame that he once bluntly pointed out to an innocent admirer that his fly-buttons were open. Nevertheless, a sympathetic understanding of the human heart is synonymous with Chekhov's name. I've often wondered how I would cope over lunch with his mixture of prickliness and generosity, his psychotic dislike of praise, his wayward charm, occasional unkindness and the profound reassurance he represents.

It might not be best to start by telling him that I have been playing a solo show about him, Anton Chekhov, on and off for 20 years; nor that I started researching it 10 years before that, after learning one day on the Trans-Siberian Express that Chekhov had made the same journey, in far worse conditions, to report on the scandalous conditions in the penal colony on Sakhalin Island; nor that I have now written a book about the part he played in my life: Are You There, Crocodile? He might become warier still to learn about some eccentricities along the way. I have rhapsodised to friends, to a reception best described as tolerant, that the vodka shop in Irkutsk I patronised in 1975 was once a hotel where Chekhov stayed for a night on my birthday in 1890, and that I have seen one of his favourite paintings in a tiny gallery high above the Arctic Circle. Once I found myself alone in his Melikhovo house when, in marvellous contrast to what might have happened in England, the curator suddenly decided to close it to visiting groups for an hour so that the English actor could be alone with his inspiration.

Finding myself barred once from a theatre in Haifa because of a bungled booking for my show, and listening to the British Council quarrelling with the administration, I have recalled the disproportionate misery Chekhov felt when his carriage had a collision on the Siberian highway and he felt stranded in another world, watching the drivers insult each other and the grass being burned by the side of the road. In my mind I have accompanied him on his rambling journey around the streets of St Petersburg after the disastrous first night of The Seagull. When he came home he went to bed, pulled a blanket over his head and told his hostess that he was what she described as "a very coarse word" if he ever wrote another play. I note that he then took a cold bath and some castor oil and immediately set to work on one of his greatest stories, Peasants.

There have been times when, like some wordfinder programme, I could almost have told you how many times Chekhov mentioned cherries, say, or crocodiles; and I once had so much material that I thought of doing a series of evenings - Chekhov on Cabbage Soup, Chekhov on The War - like the Little Grey Rabbit stories, before remembering that there are other things to do in life. I have been castigated by critics for suggesting that Chekhov once thought of writing a play in which two men wait all evening for a third who never comes - although it's perfectly true. As if in reward, at the opening night of my show at the National in 1984 (coincidentally on the anniversary of Chekhov's death), when I spoke of the flies dropping dead from boredom, one stopped its furious buzzing and did just that; and when I described Chekhov's papers being blown to the floor, they did so, even though the Cottesloe is a sealed room.

This sort of behaviour probably requires an explanation, and naturally I have been asked, in the easy parlance of such things, if I'm not a little obsessed with the man. I shy away from the word with something of Chekhov's own squeamishness - obsession to me is rummaging through Bob Dylan's garbage or lying in wait for Star Wars actors outside their houses. My adventure has been more playful, and my research ever a little opportunist, simply a means of making better guesses: in the theatre, whatever leads an audience to think, Yes, I think that's possible, carries the weight of fact.

However, I have also found, over 100-odd performances, that in Chekhov's company it is a degree easier to live something like a good life, in which his responses - tactful, candid or tolerant - continually infiltrate your own. His effect is at once inspiring and intimate. 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. A few days after suddenly losing my father, I was playing Chekhov, urging us when we lose one thing to search for another, to stand when we have fallen, to make our lives as sublime and solemn as the vault of heaven.

What is moving about these messages of his is his own shortened breath pumping behind the words. He struggled hard to deny the continuous disaster of his health, but he shirked nothing when he worked - he said that you can lie in love, politics or medicine and even deceive the good Lord himself, but that it is impossible to lie in art. He is so familiar and true of eye that I seem to have seen the streets and gardens, the hotel rooms and cherry orchards that he saw himself. None of this would come as a surprise to Russians, since to them it is axiomatic: Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy are giants, but Anton Pavlovich is a friend.

Unavailable to account for himself, Chekhov has become the invention of his admirers, who may variously prefer him tentative or exuberant, skittish or implacable, walking as delicately as a girl or tough as old boots. Some get excited about the new Chekhov, now that those old-maidish Soviets have got their hands off him to reveal new warts on the familiar face; all this does to others is to prompt a smile. For what, I think, could be more natural for a man with delicate physical difficulties in a barbarous age than to complain daily to his sister about water closets? What more obvious for a consumptive whose euphoria turned erotic at inconvenient times than occasionally to turn down some discreet alley in a Siberian town? Thank God for the loss of sanctity.

This week I return to the Cottesloe with my show, and will be performing on his birthday, January 17. Chekhov died 99 years ago, aged 44. Now he is in the Novodevichy Cemetery not far from Gogol and his artist friend Levitan; for a long time, he was back to back with his theatrical mentor Stanislavsky, as if the two men were sustaining their considerable differences beyond the grave.

For many years of pulling my show together, I seemed to see no more of Chekhov than an occasional figure looking in at the back of the stalls and mutely leaving again; now I have more confidence in my right to approach his table. He could be so silly, I have learned, and I even have a couple of bones to pick with him, such as his dismissal of Vladimir Nabokov's great-aunt, a pioneer of women's education, as a frog, and his serious underrating of Stanislavsky. But this was also the stubborn conscience that defended Captain Dreyfus, that cared for countless sick peasants and built schools and libraries; the voice that used to declare that to enquire into the meaning of life is as senseless as to ask the meaning of a carrot, and that it is ridiculous to have deep conversations about the future when you don't have a decent pair of trousers.

In a moment he will look up and survey me through his pince-nez, his mouth beginning to open, cocking his head in that appraising way that many misread as haughtiness. Chekhov is a man you can fall into step with as long as you keep things simple. Everyone should speak his own language, he used to say: what will we talk about? Plenty, I suspect, as long as I order oysters and restrict the conversation to gardening and Viennese neckties. By this means, who knows, by the time I come away I might have learned something important.

· Are You There, Crocodile? - Inventing Anton Chekhov by Michael Pennington is published by Oberon, priced £19.99.

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