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Hampstead Theatre


The British Theatre Guide, Philip Fisher

This companion piece to Sweet William has been around much longer, about now celebrating its silver anniversary.

To an extent, the nature and staging difference of Anton Chekhov is far more imagined as a full-scale theatrical piece. Michael Pennington is dressed and made up to look like his subject this time and acts around an Alison Chitty-designed set. This might easily have been drawn from a choice of the Russian doctor’s plays, with its furniture under dust covers and luggage waiting for some imminent departure.

As he demonstrated with Shakespeare, adapter/performed Pennington likes to skirt the obvious. Indeed, apart from a handful of oblique references, it takes 90 minutes to get to the point where the playwright and his work merge.

In the period before the interval, the laid-back actor gently takes us through the life of Chekhov with particular reference to the way in which this is presented on the written page in his numerous short stories. While this gradually builds up a picture of the experiences of the consumptive doctor in Russia a century ago and introduces his tubercular cough, it does no have the life and vitality of the magical second half.

During the final hour or just under, the script first flies us to the island of Sakhalin off Siberia where Chekhov took himself to carry out some anthropological and sociological experiments amongst the former criminals who inhabited that godforsaken place.

He conveys the nature of the population by likening it to Australia when it was home to convicts from Britain who had been exiled for life. The difference is that the southern hemisphere is considerably warmer than the eastern point of what used to be the USSR.

At last, Pennington-Chekhov talks briefly about his play writing and encourages audience participation by first discounting Ivanov and then allowing those with the loudest voices to select one of his four major plays for a five-minute overview. At the performance in question, Uncle Vanya, three sisters and The Cherry Orchard lost out to the Seagull.

For the intense provision of information and a witty view of that play, these are as good a five minutes as you could hope to see on a London stage at the moment.

This is followed by a nice cameo featuring the enthusiastic Astrov-like arboriculturalist  mournfully showing that his home country could destroy its forests 100 years before the Brazilians declared war on trees but to similar devastating effect.

The final scene is inevitable but at least presents a positive and optimistic, if terminal, view from a man who describes medicine as his wife and literature as his mistress and clearly loves both with equal fervour.

Sadly, the week at Hampstead only contained two performances of this mini-classic. However, on the basis that Michael Pennington has been lovingly reviving it every few years throughout the last  quarter century, those that have missed out need not worry too much.

Anyone wanting a quick fix before Anton Chekhov comes to a theatre near them, could do no worse than read Pennington’s book about his hero, Are You There Crocodile? This contains a slightly different version of the performance text but will convey the flavour, if not the quality of the performance. As a bonus, the book also features the three play summaries that any theatre visitor must inevitably have missed.

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