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Saturday March 8, 2003
The Guardian

His master's voice
Simon Callow finds Michael Pennington's commitment to Chekhov's work exemplary in Are You There, Crocodile?   

Not so long ago, in one of those preposterous polls to which newspapers are so curiously addicted, The Cherry Orchard was found to be the greatest play ever written. Leading directors throughout the world had been canvassed, and this was the conclusion.

However dubious the psephology, the poll expressed a general truth: the plays of Anton Chekhov hold a place in the affections of actors and directors like no other. Until fairly recently, this enthusiasm was not shared by the general public. The plays were thought to be box-office poison, and it was only at the insistence of performers and directors that they maintained a place in the repertory.

Nowadays, Chekhov is a universal favourite and even in an indifferent production - and there are many of these - few audiences fail to take away the impression that, in revealing the small provincial lives of his characters, the author has somehow conveyed the core of what it is to be human. His painstakingly observed people - failures, most of them, of one sort or another - are effortlessly archetypal, and the experience of watching them is one of profound recognition. Sonya, Vershinin, Tusenbach, Firs - they are like family; we actors know them all intimately.

The fact that they provide wonderful parts would itself be enough to endear them to actors; but, in addition, the world in which they live is curiously parallel to that of actors - sitting around waiting for things to happen, dreaming of the place (the West End, Hollywood) where everything is better, fitfully possessed by the compulsion to work, having short-lived affairs simply in order to stave off the gnawing sense of futility. Actors, like the doctors in Chekhov, are often consumed by a sense of having betrayed their own calling, of having disappointed themselves and God; the dachas in which so many of the plays take place are like so many green rooms.

Michael Pennington has been preoccupied by Chekhov's work since he was loftily told as a Cambridge undergraduate that he would not be cast in any of the plays: he was better suited to the English classics. Eventually he proved the student wiseacres wrong, appearing in various Chekhovian roles with some success. But his fascination went beyond the plays to the man himself, until finally he began to form a strangely personal relationship with the author. This burgeoned into a very fruitful "obsession" (Pennington's inverted commas), which produced his one-man play Anton Chekhov, his radio play Chekhov in Siberia and, by no means least, the present volume, a work of some originality.

At the simplest level, it is an account of the genesis, gestation and subsequent life of his acclaimed one-man play (which he recently revived at the National Theatre, and the text of which is included in Are You There, Crocodile?). In approaching Chekhov with a view to presenting him on stage, he comes at him from an unusual angle, sifting through the work and the life with a prospector's eye, seizing on tiny glinting incidents in each which he will assemble to convey both the essence of the man and his complexity.

The idea of doing a one-man play was put to him on the Trans-Siberian Express (where else?) by the American poet and Zen Buddhist, Lucien Stryk (who else?). At first he resisted the notion, but as his enchantment with all things Russian began to crystallise into a specific passion for Chekhov, he finally gave in to the inevitability of creating a show.

Pennington, being Pennington - fastidious, a little cerebral, deeply self-challenging - set himself the limitation of referring as little as possible to the plays or to Chekhov's relationship with the theatre. He read more and more deeply into the short stories and eventually discovered for himself that severe and little-read masterpiece "The Island of Sahkalin", a report on the God-forsaken penal colony in Siberia. Though on the surface it is Chekhov's most objective work, it turns out to be highly revealing of him. As Pennington takes us through his discoveries with characteristic patience and subtlety, we begin to peer deeply into Chekhov's mind.

What Pennington is doing is to befriend him across the century since he died. The actor has an uncommon gift for friendship; it is something he takes very seriously, and we become party to his tender, quizzical acquisition of knowledge about this important new figure in his life, who happens to be dead. He is not blind to Chekhov's faults - his artistic ruthlessness ("criminality," Pennington calls it), his occasional evasions, his odd coldness - but he must know everything about someone he calls "perhaps my favourite man".

The book has no photographs: instead, in a remarkable section, Pennington describes the successive images of Chekhov from boyhood to shortly before his early demise, and his scrutiny is that of a lover, or a detective. He trudges around in his subject's footsteps, drinks in his cafes, sits at his desk.

This is all grist to the actor's mill, of course, but there is something more at work here, an intellectual itch that marks Pennington out from his fellow thespians. Here, as in his preparations for Strider, the play adapted from Tolstoy in which he played a horse, he reveals a rather unEnglish fanaticism, a huge seriousness, touched with a soupçon of narcissism, even perhaps a slight element of masochism. He is an unusual beast in the theatre zoo.

As the one-man play becomes a reality, the second strand of this book becomes increasingly significant: the actor's hopes and dreams for his work in the theatre. He is a great idealist; indeed, he was a co-founder of the English Stage Company and has devoted his life to it as actor, director and producer. He will, it seems, go anywhere or work with anyone who will push him further. His account of working with that wily provocateur, the Russian director Yuri Lyubimov, is a classic description of theatre work at its most visionary, though he clearly sees the paradoxes of the man: "detesting totalitarianism, he was himself a tsar".

And he has a healthy appreciation of his own work. Of his performance in Strider, he says: "I suppose modesty about the result is becoming, but I don't really see why. If ever I wanted to be remembered for a piece of work, this was the one." In a world in which actors are supposed simply to shut up about their work, this attitude (as well as others revealed throughout the book) is refreshing and fitting.

He has no interest in mere virtuosity. "The solo performer has to do something beyond the reach of the best-written biography." He slowly evolves his script, developing and trimming it after opening at the National. He still has more to find. As he trawls wider and digs deeper, he continues to take us through Chekhov's work, including exceptionally lucid accounts of all the major plays. But this is no catalogue: it is, for example, the death of his father, just before the first preview performance of the show, that leads him to his discussion of The Three Sisters, which he shows to be haunted by the figure of the sisters' dead father. Similarly, the death of his mother leads on to Chekhov's mother, both of them equally vividly summoned up.

This is the third strand of the book: Pennington's own journey through life. Like his hero, he is dry, almost laconic, about his personal progress. It is his fascination with what he sees around him which gives us the man, again like Chekhov, who seems to sit on his shoulder. Pennington's literary gifts have been evident since his first book, Rossya, the riveting narrative of his 1975 journey to Siberia, and he writes here with great precision and vividness (he describes a Moscow journalist: "I last see her downing four champagnes as if they were an investment").

He recounts Chekhov's death in Badenweiller with faultless economy - the summoning of the doctor, Chekhov's delivery of his own diagnosis, the last sips of champagne, the quiet extinction of life, the large black moth which suddenly flies into the room - and quotes, as virtually the last words of the book, the words that explain the passionate esteem which Pennington and all of us feel for the great man: "Most of all, dear friend, it's impossible to lie in art. You lie in love, in politics, even in medicine; you can deceive other people and even the Good Lord himself, but it is impossible to lie in art."

Return to Books

Return to Anton Chekhov

Are You There Crocodile?
Inventing Anton Chekhov

This made the shortlist for the 2003 Theatre Book Prize. Others on the shortlist were Richard Eyre’s ‘National Service’, Oliver Ford Davies’s ‘Playing Lear’, John Haynes & James Knowlson’s ‘Images of Beckett’ and ‘A Short History of Western Performance Space by David Wiles. The judging panel consisted of Susannah Clapp, theatre critic of The Observer, Corin Redgrave and Jane Pritchard the English National Ballet archivist. They awarded the prize to Richard Eyre.