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It it’s Tuesday, I must be Chekhov

How many real people can one man play?

By Michael Pennington

The Guardian 25th November 2008

By next  Spring, I will have played 10 historical figures in a row. I am currently Shakespeare and Chekhov, in two separate solo shows. I’ll be composers Richard Strauss and Wilhelm Furtwãngler in a few months time, when Ronald Harwood’s Collaboration and Taking Sides arrive in the West End. Already I’ve been Mad George III, Oscar Wilde, Bomber Harris, the curator Sydney Cockerell, Charles Dickens and Robert Maxwell. I’m not complaining. I’ve had the opportunity to enjoy the company of characters I wouldn’t have cared to spend an evening with in real life.

With Maxwell, the physical likeness was the least of my problems: fat suits are tailored to within an inch of their lives these days, and once you’ve got the execrable blue suit, the brows and the double-dyes hair, it’s done. But rehearsing pulls you in the opposite direction, from caricature towards a real person’s contradictions. After all, you’re asking an audience to be open-minded about someone they probably decided they know all about long ago.

Reading about Maxwell, I fell upon any touch of tenderness, not to mention the grief he felt at the death of his eldest son, whom I knew a little. I chased anybody who remembered the Bouncing Czech; many seasoned journalists would report feeling a moment of unguarded kindness towards even this tyro. Did the bluster and bullying have something to do with survivor guilt, most of his family having been killed by the Nazis after he escaped to Britain? Or was it bound up with his instinctive preference for socialism over the dissimulations of English public life? Then I could start to guess, as the play demanded, what tome he might have adopted towards Mother Teresa during the day they spent together, and why he left untouched a fund earmarked for her. After, I was thanked by the daughter of one of his pension victims for making her see that he was some kind of human being - a shaky compliment perhaps, but that’s the job.

Richard Strauss looked like a bank manager on holiday and talked about money all the time: a good way of concealing the sensibility that produced Der Rosenkavalier. He’s less familiar than Maxwell, and even more of a puzzle. It’s unnerving to see film of him conducting with what looks like infinite boredom - only to learn that his musicians found him inspirational. How do you play a genius? Well, off the beat. Strauss’s attitude to his craft was that of a carpenter to his chisel. He must have sat down at the piano as casually as to his breakfast, knowing something pretty good would come of it. Shoptalk is fascinating when the shoptalker  is completely selfconscious: so Strauss discusses diatonic simplicity while eating a chocolate.

His helpless love for his wife - a woman so overbearing most of his friends dreaded coming to the house - was one of the reasons he wrote so beautifully for the soprano voice. I hope an audience will believe, from the way I look at Isla Blair, that this man could write the Four Last Songs for her, or the Alpine Symphony from the way he casually describes a view of the Obersalzberg or handles a bunch of flowers.

Dickens and Wilde, unrecorded and unfilmed, are out of reach, though I came to think that Wilde’s Irishness was embedded in the spoken rhythm of his epigrams, and that the hysteria that greeted Dickens’ public readings owed something to the shortage of oxygen in the packed gas-lit halls. And  with Shakespeare, no biography explains the fabulous fiction: I’m curious about his tone of voice and the state of his teeth, but there’s no point in my impersonating such a man.

I dogged Chekhov’s footsteps for years, crossing Siberia as he did, but in more comfort and better health. I wanted to know how he might have looked at me and whether his laugh was sudden or slow - also, what Tolstoy meant when he declared with delight that he walked like a girl. This best loved of writers is reported as being congenial and exclusive, hilarious and morbid by turns. Stanislavsky found him haughty, while the serf in Chekhov disliked Stanislavsky’s wealth and pretension. His chair in his dining room was next to the door to his study, so he could be gone in a second. I concluded Chekhov was the perfect study for a solo show, because, confronted by a live audience, he would surely oscillate between accessibility and froideur.

In every case, the facts only get you so far. Knowing you could sit Mastermind in your character gives you confidence for what really matters: the jump in the dark when, about two weeks before you open, you must exchange biographical fact for the dynamic of fiction. At that point, all bets are off.

As for familiarity, what does anyone remember of a well-known face or voice? The great cartoonist Al Hirschfeld captured Buster Keaton and Jack Benny with single penstrokes that look as if they took all of five seconds to execute. All the best impersonations - Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash, Tina Fey as Sarah Palin - are only familiar outlines, filled in by good actors.

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